John Smoltz was a Hall of Fame pitcher, who as such was acutely aware that he was already behind in the count the moment he elected to play in the PGA Tour Champions’ Cologuard Classic.
But even he must have been surprised when he was three-under par through eight holes and discovered he already was five strokes behind leader Mark O’Meara playing two groups ahead of him at Omni Tucson National on Friday.
O’Meara, 62, equaled a PGA Tour Champions record with eight consecutive birdies on a front nine of 28, though he was unable to make another birdie. He had eight pars and a bogey to close his round, to shoot a seven-under par 66 and finish one stroke behind leader Kenny Perry.
“I played well on the front,” O'Meara said, stating the obvious. “I hit some good drives, I hit some good iron shots, I made the putts that you would hope to make. To be fair, I had chances on the back nine.
“Anytime you shoot seven under, I guess you can't be too disappointed, but certainly when you're eight under after nine holes, you would like to do a little better.”
Smoltz struggled from the ninth hole on, and settled for an even-par 73 that fell short of one of his goals, none of which included winning.
“Honestly, I’m going to be very disappointed if I don’t shoot under par a couple times, or one time,” he said in a pre-tournament interview. “I'm not kidding anybody. I’m not competing for a championship. I'm trying to compete against myself to see how good I can play against the greatest players in the world. I don't even pretend to think otherwise.”
It was the best round he has posted in this his third start on a major professional tour. In 2011, he had rounds of 84 and 87 in the Web.com Tour’s South Georgia Classic and last year he shot 85-77 in the U.S. Senior Open.
"I've learned to manage the game," he said. "I putted extremely well. Put myself in situations to get defensive, and once you get defensive, it's just not a fun game to play. I learned again, I'm getting closer and closer to feeling comfortable and closer to trusting my swing."
O’Meara, meanwhile, seemed like an unlikely candidate to shoot as low as he did, given his age. He is the fifth player to post eight straight birdies on the PGA Tour Champions and also the oldest. The previous four were Chi Chi Rodriguez in 1987, Jim Colbert in 2000, Dana Quigley in 2005 and Joe Ozaki in 2006.