By ERIC RUEB
WARWICK – 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 – the radio color man for Providence College basketball – has earned the honor.
At this week’s 28th Rhode Island Stroke Play Championship, however, Hassett knew where he stood in the pecking order.
“I’m a distant No. 2,” he said. “Mike Schmidt, he was a Hall-of-Fame player and was a great player to watch.”
That’s 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 week’s Stroke Play tournament.
“After many years playing some mini-tours and celebrity stuff, I was taking money and wasn’t an amateur anymore and I couldn’t play in any amateur events,” said Schmidt, who is a member at Carnegie Abbey in Portsmouth. “I wanted to get my status back and I’m here in the Rhode Island Golf Association, a great place for golf in the summertime.”
Schmidt’s 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 Tuesday’s 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).
“I had butterflies out there a lot,” said Schmidt following Monday’s round. “I was feeling uneasy over putt, and these greens are beautiful and fast. … Some of those putts made me real nervous.”
You’d 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 Series’ ring, 12 All-Star appearances and three Most Valuable Player Awards, nerves wouldn’t be an issue for Schmidt.
But hitting a golf ball straight isn’t 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, “you don’t have to go up in the stands to play your foul balls. I do.”
“There’s a lot of time to think,” Schmidt said. “It’s a little ball standing there and your brain starts going and I haven’t met a golfer yet who doesn’t 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.”
After retiring from baseball in 1989, Schmidt didn’t 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 didn’t 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.
“I wasn’t going anywhere professionally,” he said. “I tried the Senior Tour five times and only got through the first stage once. I’m a pretty good player right now and I feel like I’m better than I’ve ever been, but I had nowhere to play so I could play in some amateur events. It’s all about the competition now, where you have to put them all in.”
The Stroke Play was Schmidt’s 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.
“I saw the pairings today and said ‘That’s Mike Schmidt the Hall of Famer,’” said Tom McCormick, a former State Amateur champ who played with Schmidt Tuesday. “I 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.”
Hassett wasn’t as star-struck as some of the other players in the field.
“Our sons were roommates in college together,” Hassett said. “Imagine that.”
The Stroke Play Championship won’t be Schmidt’s 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 isn’t always about the competition.
“I play an awful lot of golf with my wife and it’s nice, not that she’s not fun to play with, but it’s 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,” Schmidt said. “That’s why I’m doing it. I want to get out in that environment.”