Saunders eager to tee it up with Smoltz

Saunders eager to tee it up with Smoltz

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Four boxes were waiting for Joe Saunders under the Christmas tree. As he unwrapped and opened them, he knew they were clues but wrestled with the message.

The first box contained a team photo of the Atlanta Braves. The second: a picture of a peach. The third held a golf ball. Finally, the fourth box revealed a photo copy of a plane ticket to Atlanta.

Hmmmm. His wife of three years, Shanel, smiled as the Angels left-hander pondered the possibilities.

"A tee time at Augusta National?" he asked. "No chance. That's just not possible, right."


Saunders kept searching his mind.

"OK, I know I'm going golfing in Georgia, but who with?" He had a thought. "My idol was Tom Glavine growing up. I said, 'C'mon, you didn't get me a golfing meeting with Tom Glavine.'"

"No," Shanel Saunders replied. "You have a golfing date with John Smoltz."

Saunders, having grown up a Braves fan during the heyday of Glavine, Smoltz and Greg Maddux, was floored.

"What an awesome Christmas present," he said.

As it turns out, the gift hasn't yet materialized. But Saunders, getting tuned up for another season as a valued arm in manager Mike Scioscia's rotation, knows the day is coming when he'll tee it up with an athlete Tiger Woods has called "the best amateur golfer I've ever seen," according to an article read by the Angels' resident golf aficionado.

"If Tiger feels that way, you know it's on the money," Saunders said. "Smoltz is a great athlete, and a great guy. If we can't do it this season, I'll be getting on a flight next offseason and playing golf with him."

Smoltz's free agency and wintry conditions in Georgia put a hold on the date. The pitchers have spoken by phone, Smoltz letting Saunders know he's in.

1 Tiger Woods
2 Phil Mickelson
3 Freddy Couples
4 Camilo Villegas
5 Kenny Perry

"For sure we're going to do it next offseason," Saunders said. "He's up for it. This will be the first time I've gotten strokes from somebody. He was a plus-3 at one time. He said, 'I'm OK now, a scratch golfer.'

"I'm a 2 or 3 [handicap] and pretty good, but he's an amazing golfer."

Smoltz, according to Saunders, expressed a desire in exploring the Seniors Tour when he's eligible at age 50.

"He's got a few years to go," Saunders said. "That's something I've always thought about. Hopefully, it's a long ways off, but I'd like to pursue it after I'm done with ball. When our kids get older, I'd like to see how good I can be."

Introduced to the game by his grandfather, Saunders said he's never had a golf lesson and "figured things out for myself."

Saunders swings from the right side, and the best part of his game, he feels, is "100 yards in; I'm good around the greens." He has gone as low as a 2 handicap and has shot 68. A highlight was his 78 at highly challenging Oakland Hills in Bloomfield, Mich., site of the 2008 PGA Championship.

"In '05," Saunders said, "I was a 12 handicap. I was watching the Golf Channel, looking at other people's swings and how they went at it. I played four or five times a week that winter, and by next Spring Training I was a 4 handicap."

1 Oakland Hills Bloomfield, Mich.
2 TPC Scottsdale Scottsdale, Ariz.
3 Harding Park San Francisco
4 Pelican Hill Newport Coast, Calif.
5 Ocotillo Chandler, Ariz.

His teammates leave no doubt Saunders is the premier golfer among the Angels. Catchers Ryan Budde and Jeff Mathis can launch it off the tee. Second baseman Howard Kendrick has shaved 10 strokes in the past year, and, "Jered Weaver is pretty good," Saunders said.

The arrival of Mattea, the Saunders' first child, limited the doting dad's rounds to several weekly this past offseason.

"Joe's so passionate about golf," Shanel said. "He doesn't golf as much as he'd like to now, but he loves his time with Mattea."

He still gets out on occasion with familiar partners, such as teammate Jason Bulger.

"I've played with him quite a bit," Bulger said. "We live three houses apart in Chandler, [Ariz.,] so we see each other a lot.

"Joe's close to a scratch golfer. Every aspect of his game is strong. He's impressive to watch. He's driving it down there over 300 yards on a good day. He chips well, and when he's on the green, he's money. You hardly ever see him three-putt, or even two-putt. I've seen him drop some amazing putts."

Bulger can envision a time in the distant future when Saunders, 28, appears on the Senior Tour.

"If he dedicated as much time to golf as baseball, I could see him doing it," Bulger said. "On the course, he's just like he is on the mound. Good shot or bad one, he's the same guy. That's why he's so good on the mound -- and the golf course."

Shanel Saunders wouldn't mind seeing her husband take it up as a second career, "but that's a little far down the road," she added.

"We're enjoying our arbitration years," she said, Saunders having signed a $3.7 million deal for 2010. "We have a few goals here: World Series, Cy Young, All-Star Game."

She said the idea for the golfing junket with Smoltz came to her as she thought of something creative for her husband, who "is kind of hard to buy for."

She was aware of his love of the Braves growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, and zeroed in on the Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux connection.

"When I found out John Smoltz is one of the best pro athletes who plays golf," she said, "I thought to myself, "It would be great if Joe could golf with him.'

"I spoke with his agent. Our agency deals with Mark Kotsay, who is close with Smoltz. Mark Kotsay put me in touch with Smoltz. We spoke and were text-messaging. This was November, December.

"John mentioned that the weather in Atlanta is pretty terrible in the winter, so there was no date set. But Joe and John have spoken to each other, and it looks good. Maybe it will happen sometime this season if they're in the same city."

Embarking on his third season as a full-time starter, Saunders is 33-14 the past two years and 48-22 in his career with the Angels. An All-Star in 2008, he experienced periodic tightness in his pitching shoulder in 2009, took 19 days off in August, and returned to blaze down the stretch, winning his final eight decisions to finish at 16-7.

Saunders' focus, he said, is on a healthy, productive 2010. If it includes a golf date with Smoltz, that would be a bonus.

"It's a gift that keeps giving," he said. "Maybe I'll get to know him and build a friendship with him."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.