Derek Lowe, By Defeating Annika, Proved He's Part of a Truly Exclusive Club

Morning Read on Sports Illustrated
Morning Read on Sports Illustrated
Derek Lowe, shown at the 2019 QBE Shootout, beat Annika Sorenstam in a playoff last week. Chris Tilley/Naples Daily News via Imagn

Pro golfers are athletes, but just a tiny fraction of pro athletes are decent golfers, which is to use the term loosely. Many of the better ones took up the game as kids, but for every Steph Curry, a standout on his high-school golf team, there are dozens of retired jocks, comedians and country singers who can only crack wise or write a sad song about their relationship with the little white ball.

No gas, no squeegee….Like a clever television commercial that airs to the point of overkill, celebrity golf has become a trifle passé, more of a photo op/fan mingle than a legitimate tournament. The competitive element is basically irrelevant, and as ardent followers of the game surely surmised long ago, fortune and fame do not qualify as a license to to swing a golf club on TV.

If nothing else, the usual assortment of Hollywood hacks and ballplaying quacks is a reminder to us how good the world’s best players truly are, which is why the LPGA’s season opener in Orlando last week featured an occurrence of uncommon significance. Derek Lowe, a former MLB pitcher who won 176 games over a 17-year career, outlasted Annika Sorenstam in a playoff to win the Tournament of Champions celebrity division. Despite the longstanding brilliance of the opponent he vanquished, Lowe’s conquest earned little more than a passing mention in the half-dozen or so non-aggregated stories written off the event.

A much bigger deal was made of the 23-stroke difference between Lowe’s four-round total (7-over 295) and that of Danielle Kang, who defeated Brooke Henderson by three to pick up her sixth LPGA victory. Is such an exorbitant scoring gap supposed to induce shock or even mild surprise? Everybody played from the same tees last week at Lake Nona. The celebs competed in a Stableford format — Sorenstam would have beaten Lowe by a shot in stroke play — but the big righthander with a nasty sinker rolled in a 30-footer on the first extra hole to knock off perhaps the finest female golfer who ever lived.

If I beat Sorenstam in anything other than a race to the dinner table, I’d spend half my winnings in the clubhouse bar and the rest to post bail the following morning. Not that Lowe’s triumph necessitated a ticker-tape parade, but this reflexive need for people to extoll the skills of the game’s premier women players in gender-centric terms is something the ladies themselves likely find unintentionally offensive and clearly unnecessary.

Of course Kang bested Lowe by 23. She’s a professional. She has possibly spent more time grooming her game over the last 20 years than she has sleeping. “I’ve been very fortunate, have been for three days, to play with Nelly Korda,” Lowe said. “She outdrove me probably 90 percent of the time.” Anyone who has participated in an LPGA pro-am knows the deal. Performing at the highest level in any sport requires extraordinary talent, and talent ain’t no male chauvinist.

It’s interesting, how many former big-league pitchers (and NFL quarterbacks) are among the top performers on the celeb circuit. Lowe, Mark Mulder, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Tony Romo, Derek Carr — even COVID-19 expert Aaron Rodgers has dropped well into single digits. Tiger Woods has called Smoltz’s swing the best he’s ever seen from an amateur, although it’s worth noting that Smoltz served as Tiger’s pigeon for a while in the mid-2000s.

The Hall of Fame hurler considered it an honor to engage in big-money games at Isleworth — Smoltz was a willing foe who often left short on dough. Notoriously stingy, Woods would grant his buddy just two strokes per nine, although a payback of sorts arrived in 2004, when Tiger invited Smoltz to Augusta National in the middle of spring training.

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox gave Smoltz the green light to hop on Tiger’s private jet for a day he’ll never forget. “He made the place look like a pitch-and-putt,” the pitcher told golf writer Jeff Rude. “Watching him up close like that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

The two men had played with Sorenstam a couple of months before she became the first woman in 58 years to enter a PGA Tour event — the 2003 Colonial. Smoltz shot 74, beating Annika by two, but after news of his victory began circulating, she strapped on her game face and clobbered him in a rematch. Those experiences surely helped Smoltz become the golfer he is today: good enough to play in nine tournaments on the PGA Tour Champions, where he has yet to break 70 and collected just $16,000 in prize money.

It’s a completely different ballgame when you’re teeing it up with the big boys. A scratch golfer can spend all afternoon hitting pretty shots on the practice range or breaking par at his club on a regular basis. Add 25,000 spectators and a few million bucks to the equation, however, and things start to change. Performing under extreme competitive duress is something few premium amateurs are conditioned to handle, which makes Lowe’s triumph over Sorenstam a lot more amazing than anybody realizes.

Tom Lehman’s older brother Jim has won three Minnesota Senior Amateurs since 2013, one of them by 11 shots. “If Tom and I go out on a Saturday afternoon, I’m just as likely to shoot a 69 as he is,” Jim once told me. “But if there were 5,000 people gathered around every green, I’d probably shoot a 73 and he’d shoot a 66.”

Which is another way of saying that golf is a whole lot of fun until you start keeping score.

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