Not long after retiring from an 11-year Major League Baseball career in 2000, Erik Hanson saw an ad in Golf Washington magazine regarding a newly created mini-tour.
At that point, the 35-year-old Hanson, whose last major-league appearance had been June 8, 1998 for the Toronto Blue Jays, had begrudgingly decided not to undergo the Tommy John elbow surgery that might have prolonged his pitching career.
Facing what would have been an 18-month rehab stint, the 6-foot-6 right-hander turned his attention to another game. Since taking up golf seriously six years earlier, Hanson had seen his handicap quickly improve from an 8 to scratch.
So the fledgling Cascade Tour seemed like the perfect outlet to keep Hanson’s competitive juices flowing without the physical punishment that a life in baseball had entailed. The 36-hole events offered Hanson the chance to test his golf skills against some of the best players in the Pacific Northwest.
“As an amateur, you could play with a 2 or less handicap,” said Hanson.
So the Kirkland, Wash., resident signed on, and in his first tournament round, he carded a 2-under-par 70 and played in the final group in Round 2.
“I remember calling my dad and telling him it’s just like pitching,” said Hanson. “[It] gave me the same feelings … [and] it didn’t have to be on a stage in front of 50,000 people. And it was new to me.”
It also launched Hanson into a world of elite amateur golf. He began entering Washington State Golf Association, Pacific Northwest Golf Association, Pacific Coast Golf Association and eventually United States Golf Association competitions.
Hanson has participated in seven USGA events – two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and five Men’s State Team Championships – but has yet to qualify for the marquee championship: the U.S. Open.
On May 7 at Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Wash., Hanson will compete in one of the 109 local qualifiers across the country in his quest to play in the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Hanson, who turns 47 on May 18, is one of a handful of current or former pro athletes from outside of golf to file an entry for the 2012 U.S. Open. That list includes ex-major-league infielder Chris Sabo, Hall of Fame tennis player Ivan Lendl, 2002 U.S. Olympic silver medalist and ex-NHL goalie Mike Dunham, former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver and Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee. From that list, only Hanson (2007) has advanced to the sectional stage, although Dunham was a first alternate out of local qualifying last year. Both Dunham and Sabo have qualified for a U.S. Mid-Amateur.
“It’s a pipedream, no question,” said Hanson of his chances. “Especially as old as I am getting now and as beat up as I am getting, I feel like I am taping up to play on Sundays in the NFL as opposed to playing golf.”
Years of wear and tear from pitching have taken their toll on Hanson. As a junior at Wake Forest, he was headed for an All-American season until a teammate ran into him during batting practice, tearing his knee. He labored through three injury-filled seasons with the Blue Jays, the last of his four big-league stops, before hanging up the uniform for good prior to the 2000 season. And while golf isn’t as taxing on his body as pitching, Hanson still deals with maladies on and off the course.
“I wrap my ankle, I wrap my wrist,” he said. “I’ve had all these surgeries. I have a bulging disk in my back, so I can’t really rip it anymore. And playing 7,500-yard courses is tough.”
Growing up in northern New Jersey – he was born in Kinellon – Hanson had his eyes on playing basketball. His older brother, Roger, was recruited by Bobby Knight to play at Indiana University, although he eventually went to Penn State. Erik didn’t even play baseball as a freshman or sophomore at the prestigious Peddie School, and when he did sign up to play, he thought of himself as a third baseman. It wasn’t until the first practice of his senior year that the coaches discovered his pitching talent. He went 8-0, developing a wicked curveball along the way, and led the Peddie School to a state championship.
Hanson was drafted in the seventh round by the Montreal Expos, but chose to attend Wake Forest, where he stayed in the Arnold Palmer Dormitory along with several members of the golf team, including Billy Andrade, Len Mattiace and Jerry Haas. “I never played golf,” he said. “We might have gone to the driving range for fun.”
In fact, it wasn’t until long after he was taken by the Seattle Mariners in the second round of the 1986 draft that Hanson began playing golf seriously. He participated in a few charity outings, but not until 1994 when he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds did Hanson start playing regularly. During his lone All-Star season with the Boston Red Sox in 1995 when he went 15-5, Hanson often played with Roger Clemens, and a few years later he joined Sahalee Country Club outside of Seattle.
Hanson fell in love with the Pacific Northwest from the moment he arrived in Seattle in 1988. The Mariners were his first big-league team and he met his wife, Laura, in Seattle. He also went a career-best 18-9 with 211 strikeouts in 1990 for the Mariners.
By the end of his career – he posted an 89-84 record with 1,175 strikeouts and a 4.15 ERA – Hanson had purchased a second home in Scottsdale, Ariz., so he could spend the winter months honing his golf game at Pinnacle Peak C.C., away from the rainy Pacific Northwest. He returns to Kirkland every May to begin his competitive season, playing 16-20 events a year.
One thing Hanson has discovered since taking golf seriously is the similarities to pitching. Both require extreme focus and concentration. Both require hitting a target. And the movements are remarkably alike.
“Mechanically, you start in the static position,” said Hanson. “You wind up, you rotate and you explode at one moment. What are you trying do as a pitcher? You are trying to repeat something. Why? So you can be consistent and control where the ball is going. You are trying to be in control of your ball. It’s something you hear from golfers all the time.
“Philosophically, it’s even more alike. You hear the [common] phrases all the time: You’ve got to stay in the moment. You can’t get ahead of yourself. It’s the same thing in pitching. If you let a two-run homer affect you, you’re done. You’ve got to continue to stop the bleeding. If you make a double bogey, you can’t let that affect [the rest of the round].
“And you can’t get ahead of yourself. If you are facing the No. 8 or 9 hitter and worrying about [lead-off man] Rickey Henderson, the next thing you know those 8 and 9 hitters are on base. You hear guys thinking about 17 at TPC [Sawgrass] when they are on 13. You can’t think about that until the shot is there.”
That kind of approach certainly has helped Hanson have success on the amateur circuit. He has won a couple of major regional events, the Oregon Open and Northwest Open, and he has reached the semifinals at the PNGA Amateur. At the USGA Men’s State Team Championship, all 15 of his rounds have counted toward Washington’s score in the 3-count-2 format. Washington has finished in the top 10 the past three competitions.
Hanson also serves on the recruiting committee for the prestigious Sahalee Players Amateur, an event that has produced champions such as Ryan Moore and Kyle Stanley in recent years. Hanson has also competed in the last nine Sahalee Players. While it’s tough for him to beat the college hotshots, Hanson enjoys seeing the game’s future from an inside-the-ropes view.
He has seen a wealth of talented golfers from Washington succeed on the amateur and professional level. That group includes past USA Walker Cup participants Moore, Stanley, Brock Mackenzie and Michael Putnam, as well as current pros Andres Gonzales and Alex Prugh.
“For me, one of the most rewarding parts of playing in all these amateur events is not only playing with the kids, but seeing which ones are going to make it to the next level,” he said. “That’s one of the fun things for me.”
Which is one reason why he enjoys playing U.S. Open qualifiers. Occasionally, Hanson will surpass even his own expectations. Five years ago, he advanced out of U.S. Open local qualifying in a playoff. But at the 36-hole sectional at Gold Mountain Golf Course in Bremerton, Wash., he finished well behind medalist Alex Prugh, who earned the only Open spot out of the small field. Playing 36 holes in one day is difficult for Hanson from a physical standpoint. He says that’s one reason he hasn’t been able to qualify for the U.S. Amateur.
“What always gets me is the last nine [holes],” said Hanson. “I just get tired. I push, I grind. If they had it over two days, I would have a much better chance.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.