This time, Rhoden looking for quality hits

Challenge of senior tour appeals to former pitcher

Golf

October 02, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

During a 19-year professional baseball career, pitcher Rick Rhoden established a reputation as a pretty good hitter.

Now, he has transferred that ability to the golf course.

"When I play well, I'm usually driving the ball good," said Rhoden, who was among 78 players who teed it up yesterday for the first round of the Constellation Energy Classic at Hayfields Country Club. "That's the best thing I do.

"I think everybody believes they can putt better, more consistently. As I get older, I'm scoring better, but it's a lot harder work."

Since retiring from the major leagues in 1989 after 16 seasons, Rhoden has been dominant on the Celebrity Players Tour.

"I got to meet a lot of guys I admired in other sports," he said. "Michael Jordan. Dan Marino. John Elway. A lot of them would be very good at golf if they had the time to work at it."

But it was Rhoden who moved upward, scratching the itch that beckoned him to compete against the most gifted older players in the world on the Champions Tour.

"This is really hard," he said. "I've been playing golf at this level for a couple of years. They [his competition] have seen everything that can happen in the game."

Rhoden's introduction to the caliber of the golf was last June when he took on legendary figures like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Senior Open in Ohio. "It was kind of like pitching the first game of the World Series," he said.

Still, in his first summer on the Tour last August, Rhoden, a lifelong Florida resident, ignored the sticky heat and humidity of Iowa to lead the Allianz Championship by a stroke on the back nine of the final round.

"I was a big fan of his when he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers," Don Pooley, who eventually won the tournament, told the Des Moines Register. "When I got to the 11th green, I wished he was still pitching."

"My putter started feeling like a sledgehammer," Rhoden said.

Landing opportunities may be Rhoden's biggest challenge. He has twice tried to gain an exemption through national qualifying school where as many as 80 players have vied for four (soon to be two) spots. Rhoden missed by a stroke in 2002. "You almost have to shoot a course record to make it," he said.

In lieu of surviving that test, he must pass through Monday qualifiers or depend on sponsor exemptions to make the field.

Rhoden, 51, was a 2-handicap player when his baseball career ended after 380 big-league starts, 151 wins and two All-Star Games. He played for Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, the Yankees and Houston.

He was also the first pitcher ever to start a game as the designated hitter while with the Yankees. "I batted seventh against the Orioles," he said. "Rickey Henderson was hurt. I grounded out to third and hit a sacrifice fly."

The Oriole connection doesn't end there. Former Oriole catcher Mickey Tettleton, a good friend, frequently caddies for Rhoden although he is not able to be at this tournament.

"He can hit the ball farther than anybody I've ever seen," Rhoden said of Tettleton. "I mean, John Daly distance. If he could just get his tee ball under control ... ."

Rhoden had little desire to stay in baseball after his playing days ended.

"I had a chance to do some things in baseball," he said. "But it's hard work bouncing around the minors and you're not going to get paid much. In golf, I can make more and with the celebrity thing, have a lot of fun, too."

His approach is the same on the course as it was with pitching.

"It's not who you play, it's how. If you pitch a good game, you've got a good chance to win. You can't think about Tom Seaver or somebody being the other pitcher," he said. "Same here. If you get a good score, you can win. The only difference here is that if you're getting pounded in golf, they don't take you out."

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