Editor's Note: Mark Mulder, 37, was a two-time MLB All-Star and one of the best pitchers in baseball in the 2000s. He's now a scratch golfer who lives in Arizona, works for ESPN and won the American Century Celebrity Championship two weekends ago with a final-round 67. We caught up with him about the win at Lake Tahoe, where NBC Sports Group announced it will remain a tournament title sponsor through 2022.
First of all, congrats on the win. That's a really competitive field -- how'd you get it done?
It was amazing. It was a lot of fun. I knew it was in there. In past years, I knew I had a chance to win. I could always compete with some of the better players but just never got it done. When I finished third, I had a couple holes that just killed me. I always played well enough but not great. But I also never went into the tournament feeling really really good about my game. And this year, my game felt better than past years but not great. But the first day on the range, man, no joke, one of the pro-am days, after my first five swings, it was just like, ‘There it is.’ It was what I was searching for in the three weeks prior to the event.
I just hadn’t been playing that well, I was shooting low to mid-70s leading up to the tournament. And just could never get anything going. And then finally got it going in the practice rounds and just continued it through the weekend.
What was the difference? Was it a tip or something that you got?
I’ve taken one golf lesson in my life, three or four years ago at Whisper Rock with our head pro when I was just playing awful. No, it’s just, for me, it’s all feel. I don’t really know how to fix my swing. There are a couple drills I’ll go back to sometimes. But I don’t have a great understanding of my swing. But to be honest, I pitched on feel and I play golf on feel. You know? If my feel isn’t there, I’m probably not gonna play that well.
Because I go through funks man. I’ll go through funks where I shoot in the 80s every day. And that’s because I don’t really know how to fix my swing. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t care enough. I’m not that into it, where I need to fix it right away. My wife and I have three little kids, so I get golfed out real easy. So I might play four out of five days, but then I won’t touch a club for a week or so. And that often fixes my problems sometimes.
Yeah, that’s so true, I think a lot of golfers would agree that can clear your head from what you’re thinking about. But as someone who was an elite-level pitcher and athlete for years, it’s probably easy to go off of feel. So I’m wondering, for the last five years or so when you’ve played seriously, is there something that’s clicked, or something you’ve developed or realized in your swing?
The biggest difference is that I play year-round now. When the baseball season started, I’d be really good when spring training started because I’d be playing all winter. And then the season starts, and in April and May, you’re playing in cold cities and I played maybe once a month. And then you get into July and August, you play a couple different cities, and it depended when I was pitching and how the schedule worked out. So I wouldn’t play a bunch during the season, so then your short game goes away.
But now I’m playing so you get in a groove. Some of the best courses I’ve gotten to play over the years around the country, Augusta National, for example, I played so-so because it was during baseball season and I wasn’t playing great. But then I got done, I had to fill that competitive void somehow.
When I started playing in the Golf Channel Am Tour things, just so I could compete, I was tied with one of the guys, and I knew I had a chance tow in this thing. And I flat-out choked. It wasn’t that bad, I just made a couple of bogeys over the last couple holes. But I never played any competitive golf. Then I got in the Lake Tahoe tournament the first year, it was like a mad scramble trying to find tournaments to play in to prepare myself a little bit. Because I’m well aware that you can’t just show up at a golf tournament not knowing how to win under those conditions. And the first year in Tahoe, my first round, I played really well. And it was like, oh boy. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next round I played awful. So part of me had to learn how to play tournament golf. I had never done it before.
There was a learning curve I guess you could say, how to handle myself, and not get too excited. I’ve learned, at Tahoe, when you get down to those last couple of holes - with all those people, plus the elevation, and that, I’ll take a full less club because I know how much adrenaline I have. And I can hit a three-quarter little knockdown. But under the gun? I have no chance. And on the 17th hole, there’s no finesse on that hole. I just take a wedge and hit it full for about 170 yards. And even this year, I choked down on the wedge, cuz I knew I had even more adrenaline.
As someone who has pitched on some of the biggest stages in baseball, was that surprising to you to feel the heat like that?
I’m fully aware that I haven’t hit thousands of golf balls in practice like tour players have. There were 50,000 people in the stands at baseball games. But during a playoff game or whatever, I’d never get nervous in my life, because I had a complete confidence in what I’m doing. And I describe to people, the first couple years I played in this, all of a sudden the cameras come right and set up 10 feet behind you to broadcast your shot, and the only thought going through my head was: "If my buddies see me shank this, I’ll never live it down.” That’s the type of stuff you think about.
And I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. What are you doing?’ I would hit a couple hits in the Tahoe tournament that I’ll never hit again for another full year. Things happen, and when you get under pressure that just don’t happen at other times. And it’s definitely a very different thing from baseball, because I guess I don’t have that “under-the-gun” experience in golf. Pitching all those big-pressure games, I’ve never done in golf. The knowing that I’ve been there and done that. Baseball, it was fine. Golf, not a chance.
How often do you get to play now? What are the hours like when you’re working for ESPN and Baseball Tonight?
You know, I generally don’t bring my clubs when I do the ESPN stuff. John Kruk, Karl Ravich and those guys, we’d go out and play from time to time. But for me, living on the West Coast, traveling to the East Coast, I’m usually staying on West Coast time because our shows will go to 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. So I wouldn’t want to wake up until 11:00 on the East Coast time.
When I was going to bed at 2:00 and then waking up at 6:45 a.m. to go play, it wasn’t exactly a whole lot of fun. So I just take those times, and when I get home, there’s plenty of time to play golf. My three kids are the priority, but now my 7-year-old is getting into it. So I’ll take him with me from time to time. That makes it a lot more fun.
So you play most of your golf at Whisper Rock when you’re home?
Yeah, we split our time. We have a place here in Flagstaff called Pine Canyon and we live right on the golf course up here. So we live on one of the tee boxes, and we go out and I’ll get to play in the summer time. Up here, we’re at about 7,000 feet, which is essentially the same as Tahoe. So when I go play I don’t have to adjust to the elevation and I know my yardages, because it’s very different.
Related: Q&A with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz
Yeah, that’s huge. Do you get to play with the group of tour players that play at Whisper Rock?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Our Friday games are a ton of fun, and a ton of tour guys play in those, whether it’s Kevin Stadler, Ricky Barnes. He’s not a member at Whisper Rock but Pat Perez is one of my good friends for like 15 years now, so we play a bunch. Not a lot in recent years since I’m busier with the kids. But it’s awesome man. It’s fun to play against them and with them.
Bryce Molder’s another guy. People don’t realize how good these guys are. Bryce and I played a couple weeks ago. And I’m just playing fantastic. I shoot a 69. And he didn’t seem like he played that well. So I was like, ‘I don’t know, he might’ve got me by one or two.’ But he beat me by four. He shot a ho-hum 65. It was the easiest 65 I’ve seen.
And that’s how it is with those guys. And that’s also what I love. I’m such a competitor, that I try to emulate them. That might sometimes get me in trouble because I try to hit shots that they hit, and I can’t. That’s not what I should be doing. And I’ll start to hit some shot I see them hit when I’m playing well that I’m just not capable of. And I get those bad habits and whatever.
Who’d you play with traveling from city to city? Mostly the pitchers I’d guess.
Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis I got to play a little more with when I was with St. Louis. But, yeah. I’ve gotten to play Augusta National twice. SO many tour stops in the major cities. So getting to understand these courses and see the shots these guys are hitting when I’m watching it on TV.
I played Medinah a week before they closed it right before the Ryder Cup in 2012. And played it from the absolute tips, as far back as you could. And then you watch the Ryder Cup, and they played it a couple tee boxes up. I was like, ‘C’mon!’ Because they want some birdies in the Ryder Cup, which I understand. But their signature par 3 - the 13th hole there - we played it from 240 yards or whatever it was. And they’re it a little under 200.
But regardless, it’s great getting to see that stuff. We got to play Colonial in Texas. And all the really private ones in Texas.
Now you’ve won this event, which is one of the biggest for athletes and celebrities. Any thoughts to playing in some tour events, maybe a Web.com Tour event down the road?
Probably not man. I’m gone from my family with ESPN enough. And I don’t take the whole golf thing all that serious, aside from leading up to the Tahoe experience. But I know how much work I put in to get to the highest level in baseball. And to be honest, I don’t have the time or the patience to put in that time in golf. I’m too much of a perfectionist and too much of a competitor to do it and not do it 100 percent. It would ruin it if I didn’t do the absolute best. So if I started to take that serious.
Next weekend, we have the club championship at Pine Canyon where we spend our summers, so that’s kind of my next little thing. I’ll keep the competitive juices flowing like that and it’s all good.
Photos: Golf photographs/courtesy of NBC/Golf Channel and baseball courtesy of Getty Images
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