"It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits," Hank Aaron once said. "I did it in one afternoon on the golf course."
Like everyone else, ballplayers have a longstanding love-hate relationship with golf. But at least seven former big leaguers seem to have it figured out. This year, MLB vets John Smoltz, Livan Hernandez and Mike Ignasiak are attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open, while Chris Sabo, Garry Templeton, Erik Hanson and Shane Rawley will try for the U.S. Senior Open.
The process is simple, but making it through is not easy. To qualify for the U.S. Open, candidates must play 18 holes of golf at any one of 111 designated sites. Those with the best scores will reach Sectionals, in which they must play 36 holes at one of 12 sites. For those over the age of 50, there is only one round of qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open, so they have just 18 holes to prove themselves. In 2014, out of more than 9,000 entries, only 24 made it through qualifying to play in the U.S. Open.
Five of the seven players attempting to qualify are former pitchers, which is likely not a coincidence. Pitchers, especially starters, simply have more free time during their big league careers with which to hone their golf games. But, mechanically, a good golf swing is much more like the pitching motion than the baseball swing. When a pitcher throws the ball, his weight fully transfers from the back foot to the front foot as the hips rotate, just as in a golf swing. The same is not true for the baseball swing, where most of the weight stays on the back foot; golfers who swing like baseball players produce slice after slice.
Smoltz feels golf and pitching are alike from the mental aspect as well. "Golf is the closest thing to the anticipation of getting ready to pitch a game," he says. "There are all kinds of things that can go wrong, and it's about how you handle them and what your process is like. When you pitch, you make 115 pitches and decisions, and golf is the same."
Smoltz, 47, has tried several times to qualify for the U.S. Open and has reached the sectional qualifier twice. This year, he decided to give it another shot when he realized both rounds of qualifying would take place at courses he is very familiar with: Golf Club of Georgia, where he once shot a 66, and Hawks Ridge, also in Georgia, where he logged a 65. Smoltz has been playing both courses for the better part of two decades.
At one point, Smoltz's handicap was a plus-4, though he says he's back to scratch now. "I haven't been playing very well lately, but recently I figured some things out," he says. "In reality, I'm not going to qualify, but it's fun to see how I measure up."
Ignasiak pitched parts of four seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, from 1991 through 1995. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he owns several Dairy Queen franchises. Weather in Michigan has prevented Ignasiak from getting on the golf course very often in recent months, but he has attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open six times and has reached the sectionals twice. He'll play his first round at Flint Golf Club in Flint, Mich.
"I was a plus-3 handicap when I was playing a lot, and I was younger and healthier and not as busy," Ignasiak says. "Now I play more for fun, but I'll keep trying to qualify until they take my clubs away."
Hanson pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues with Seattle, Cincinnati, Boston and Toronto, and made a career playing on the USGA amateur tour following his retirement from baseball.
"I tried all through the 2000s to make the U.S. Open, and made it through to sectionals twice," Hanson says. "The Open, it's a dream. It's such a long shot because the guys are just so good. So many guys think they're right there, but after playing any sport at the highest level, you realize just how much better they are."
Hanson, who turns 50 on May 18, will make his first attempt to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open this year, at Loomis Trail Golf Club in Blaine, Wash.
Rawley, 59, pitched for the Mariners, Yankees, Phillies and Twins over the course of his 12-year career, and he was a National League All-Star in 1986. Following his retirement from baseball, he made it to sectionals for the U.S. Open twice, and was twice selected as an alternate for the Senior Open. He'll try again this year, also at Vinoy Golf Club in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Hernandez, 40, pitched for 11 teams in his 17-year big league career. He was a two-time All-Star and, in 1997, won a World Series title with the Florida Marlins. He was the NLCS and World Series MVP that year. Nowadays, Hernandez is an avid golfer. He'll be playing his qualifying round for the U.S. Open at The Club at Emerald Hills in Hollywood, Fla.
Sabo and Templeton, the two position players, will each make a run at the Senior Open.
Sabo, the 1988 National League Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star for the Cincinnati Reds, has also been a regular at the U.S. Open qualifiers.
"I tried many times to qualify for the U.S. Open, and this will be my third time trying for the Senior Open," said Sabo, who is now 53. "I'm old and I don't hit the ball quite as hard as I used to, but I'm pretty accurate, I keep the ball in play, I'm a plus-1 handicap and I still love golf."
Sabo, who has twice qualified for the USGA's Mid-Amateur Championship, will play his qualifying round at the Vinoy with Rawley.
Templeton was a three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner in his 16-year career as a shortstop with the Cardinals, Padres and Mets. Now, at age 59, he can drive a golf ball 300 yards and is a plus-3 handicap. He'll make his second attempt to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open at Fairbanks Ranch in San Diego.
According to the USGA, just two professional baseball players have previously qualified for either U.S. Open. Most recently, former Dodgers pitcher Rick Rhoden qualified for the U.S. Senior Open four times, in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Outfielder Sammy Byrd, who played for the Yankees and Reds from 1929 through 1936, was nicknamed "Babe Ruth's Legs" because he would often pinch run for Ruth. Following his baseball career, Byrd played in 10 U.S. Opens.