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By ERIC RUEB
WARWICK â Joe Hassett is usually the most famous player in the field when he takes part in a Rhode Island Golf Association event. After an eight-year NBA career that including a title with the Seattle Supersonics in 1979, Hassett â the radio color man for Providence College basketball â has earned the honor.
At this weekâs 28th Rhode Island Stroke Play Championship, however, Hassett knew where he stood in the pecking order.
âIâm a distant No. 2,â he said. âMike Schmidt, he was a Hall-of-Fame player and was a great player to watch.â
Thatâs right. That Mike Schmidt, more commonly referred to by fans as Michael Jack Schmidt, perhaps the best third baseman of all time. Schmidt, 61, summers in Portsmouth and after years of toiling away on mini tours and celebrity tours, had gotten his amateur status back fewer than two weeks ago and played his first event at this weekâs Stroke Play tournament.
âAfter many years playing some mini-tours and celebrity stuff, I was taking money and wasnât an amateur anymore and I couldnât play in any amateur events,â said Schmidt, who is a member at Carnegie Abbey in Portsmouth. âI wanted to get my status back and Iâm here in the Rhode Island Golf Association, a great place for golf in the summertime.â
Schmidtâs not some celebrity hack either.
He opened the tournament with a solid 72 Monday, but four bogeys and a double bogey cost him in his back nine of Tuesdayâs morning round as Schmidt posted a 76. He was a little off to start his afternoon round, bogeying three of the first four holes, but made only one bogey the rest of the way and had an eagle on 15 to finish the round at 71. Schmidt finished the tournament at 219, good for a tie for 24th and he was third in the Senior Division behind RIGA legends Paul Quigley (213) and senior winner Dr. George Pirie (208).
âI had butterflies out there a lot,â said Schmidt following Mondayâs round. âI was feeling uneasy over putt, and these greens are beautiful and fast. âŠ Some of those putts made me real nervous.â
Youâd think after an 18-year career as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, where he hit 548 career home runs, played defense better than anyone not named Brooks Robinson and earned a World Seriesâ ring, 12 All-Star appearances and three Most Valuable Player Awards, nerves wouldnât be an issue for Schmidt.
But hitting a golf ball straight isnât always easy. As Sam Snead once told Boston Red Sox outfielders Ted Williams, after the two argued over if it was easier to hit a moving baseball or a stationary golf ball, âyou donât have to go up in the stands to play your foul balls. I do.â
âThereâs a lot of time to think,â Schmidt said. âItâs a little ball standing there and your brain starts going and I havenât met a golfer yet who doesnât think negative and [ask] what can go wrong. The thing you have to work on to be a golfer to go around the golf course is confidence.â
After retiring from baseball in 1989, Schmidt didnât have much of a chance to play in amateur tournaments. He played in the Celebrity Tour and won enough to keep him interested in chasing his golf dream.
But the dream didnât go too far. After failing to make it on mini tours and a couple unsuccessful runs at the Champions Tour Qualify School, Schmidt decided to apply to have his amateur status reinstated.
He got in on July 17, two years after he cashed his last check from playing golf.
âI wasnât going anywhere professionally,â he said. âI tried the Senior Tour five times and only got through the first stage once. Iâm a pretty good player right now and I feel like Iâm better than Iâve ever been, but I had nowhere to play so I could play in some amateur events. Itâs all about the competition now, where you have to put them all in.â
The Stroke Play was Schmidtâs first tournament back as an amateur, but with players like Charlie Blanchard and Brad Valois in the field, he was just another name.
A very, very, famous one.
âI saw the pairings today and said âThatâs Mike Schmidt the Hall of Famer,ââ said Tom McCormick, a former State Amateur champ who played with Schmidt Tuesday. âI remember my father, as a Red Sox fan, he loved Mike Schmidt. Before the era of the juiced ball and that stuff, this guy was a power hitter. It was awesome.â
Hassett wasnât as star-struck as some of the other players in the field.
âOur sons were roommates in college together,â Hassett said. âImagine that.â
The Stroke Play Championship wonât be Schmidtâs only tournament in Rhode Island this summer. He will play in the Rhode Island Open at Kirkbrae Country Club on August 9 and 10 and the Mid-Amateur Championship at Carnegie Abbey that takes place in September.
Schmidt said he enjoyed the competition at the Stroke Play, but playing in RIGA events isnât always about the competition.
âI play an awful lot of golf with my wife and itâs nice, not that sheâs not fun to play with, but itâs nice to get out with guys who can play and hit it out where you can hit it, know how to play the game and know how to score,â Schmidt said. âThatâs why Iâm doing it. I want to get out in that environment.â