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Mark Mulder has a theory about pitching, and how it relates to his current obsession.

“Think of it this way: What are the only things in sports that are similar to pitching? Golf and shooting a free throw,” Mulder said by phone recently. “Nothing can happen in (baseball) until I throw that pitch. Nothing can happen in golf until I hit that ball. … If it’s hockey, if it’s a quarterback, if it’s shooting a 3-pointer, it’s a reaction. Those are all reactions. You just react to the play. Think about it: The only people who get the yips are pitchers and golfers.”

In the spirit of the World Cup, I would add the penalty kick to the short list of nothing-happens-till-I-say-so moments.

Mulder believes his theory explains why so many pitchers are good golfers. And you could point to the American Century Championship as proof. It’s a star-studded event that will include the likes of Stephen Curry, Marcus Allen, Doug Pederson, Ray Romano and Dan Quayle when it tees off at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada, from July 13-15. Former MLB hurler Rick Rhoden has won the tournament eight times, more than anyone else, and last year’s Top 10 included Derek Lowe and John Smoltz.

Mulder could end up as the best golfer in the rotation. The former member of the A’s “Big Three” starting pitchers is in the process of reinventing his sports legacy. He has won the American Century each of the past three years.

Mulder, who finished second in American League Cy Young voting in 2001 and made two starts in the National League Championship Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, pitched his last major-league game when he was 30 years old. A shredded rotator cuff cut short his career. But Mulder may be just getting warmed up as a golfer. His margin of victory at the American Century is growing annually.

“I guess you could say I’m kind of an athletic person,” Mulder said with hesitation.

Uhh, yeah. And golf was always on his radar. He started playing in elementary school, when he lived in the Chicago suburb of South Holland, Illinois. Mulder figures he was in about fifth grade when he saved enough money from his paper route to buy a $20 resident card at his local public course, River Oaks.

“As a kid, I could play it for three dollars,” Mulder said. “So I would go there with a five-dollar bill. My mom would drop my brother and I off. I had three bucks to play, carrying your bag. Buck-fifty for a hot dog and a Coke at the turn, and two quarters to call my mom after the round.”

That went on into high school, when baseball crowded out Mulder’s other pastimes. He didn’t play much golf at Michigan State, but he started up again after the A’s drafted him in 1998. He moved to Arizona for Rookie League and never left. Suddenly Mulder had ample downtime and a climate that encouraged year-round golf.

“I’d go into the A’s complex around 8, 9 in the morning,” he said. “We’d work out, a handful of us, and we’d tee off by noon, probably every other day.”

By the time Mulder reached the big leagues in 2000, he was poring over the A’s road schedule and figuring out which courses awaited him. Professional ballplayers have money and connections, and Mulder got to play some of the best private courses in the country.

He had some rules governing his hobby. He never played golf the day he pitched, or the day before. He wouldn’t play three days in a row. “But a seven-game road trip, I would try to play twice if it worked out OK,” he said.

Throw in homestands, Mulder said, and he played four or five rounds per month during the season. He took it seriously enough that if he had an early tee time the next day, he’d duck back to the hotel at 12:30 a.m. while teammates ordered the next round of drinks.

Mulder golfed with Tim Hudson (he and Barry Zito were the other members of the Big Three), Jermaine Dye and other Athletics, but his favorite partners were Ted Lilly and the late Cory Lidle, both starting pitchers. His memories of Lidle, as you might imagine, are bittersweet.

Mulder said the two were playing in the East Bay — he isn’t sure if it was Diablo Country Club or Contra Costa Country Club — on Sept. 11, 2001, when his mother called to let him know that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Five years and one month later, Mulder was in New York City traffic, driving to Shea Stadium for the Cardinals’ final practice before Game 1 of the NLCS, when he learned that Lidle’s single-engine plane had crashed into a residential building in Manhattan; Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, both died.

During homestands, Mulder golfed religiously on off days. He has hit balls at most of the notable golf courses in San Francisco and the East Bay, not to mention all the Pebble Beach classics.

“I had a day when I went out with two of the grounds-crew guys on a Monday off day, and we played Olympic in the morning and San Fran Club in the afternoon,” Mulder said.

By the time he was earning his three All-Star appearances with the A’s, Mulder was a 5- or 6-handicap golfer who frequently shot in the high 70s. He was with Hudson and Gil Heredia at a course in Scottsdale the first time he broke 70. None of his teammates could beat him unless he gave them strokes.

If you golf regularly, you will be annoyed to learn that Mulder has taken only two lessons in his life. “And one of ’em was about a month ago because my game was a little shady, and I couldn’t fix it myself,” he said.

The guy is a natural. He is also a keen observer. His home course in Scottsdale, Whisper Rock Golf Club, has a membership roll that includes at least 20 PGA Tour players. “That’s really how I got better, was watching them,” Mulder said.

He used to follow the American Century Championship during his pitching days, and was jealous of the golfers. The scenery looked beautiful, the fans enthusiastic, the competition memorable. He told teammates that he would one day win the famed tournament.

Mulder’s chance came much sooner than he had ever anticipated. In 2006, he went 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA for the Cardinals. But it was his final healthy season. He started just 21 games over the next three years, made a couple of subsequent, failed comeback attempts and finally retired in February of 2015, a year after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in spring training with the Angels.

Like a lot of professional athletes, Mulder felt an empty space when he retired.

“I wanted that nervous feeling,” he said. “I wanted to feel what I felt when I was younger in baseball. So that’s what golf did for me. It gave me that competitiveness and filled that void.”

Mulder said the first time he teed off in front of 500 people at the American Century, he was “10 times more nervous” than he would have been in the seventh game of the World Series.

“Because pitching is what I have the utmost confidence in,” he said. “It’s what I do. It is what I have trained for. I have thrown x amount of pitches in my life. PGA Tour players have hit x amount of balls in their life. So therefore, the confidence they have in their swing, and the confidence I have in that pitch I’m throwing, is pretty much the same. But then if I go try to do golf, well, I’ve hit 1/20th of the balls that they’ve hit. … You put in the work to create that confidence and that belief.”

Mulder threw and batted left-handed. He writes with his left hand, too. But he bowls and pitches softballs with his right hand. And he is a right-handed golfer. “Anything underhand is righty, anything overhand is lefty,” Mulder said. “I’m a little weird like that.

He is a strong driver. At Edgewood Tahoe, which sits at an elevation of more than 6,200 feet, Mulder can hit 320, 330 yards off the tee. But he has won this tournament three times, he is convinced, because of his chipping and putting.

Mulder’s affinity for golf, and his success, raise a question. How far is he willing to take this? Could he follow Smoltz’s footsteps and join the PGA’s Champions tour for older players? Just last month, Smoltz qualified for the U.S. Senior Open.

Mulder shot down the notion like a pitcher getting out of a jam with a 95-mph fastball at the knees.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Oh, just practice, get ready for the senior tour,’” Mulder said. “I’m like, that’s all fine and dandy, but the thing is, all those guys that are beating me by six to eight shots now, when we turn 50? They’re still gonna be beating me by six or eight. And to be fair, I know how hard it was to get to the top in baseball, and I have no intention of wanting to put in that much work to get to the top in golf. … If I did, I would be all-in, and I’d be consumed by it. And golf wouldn’t be fun to me anymore.”

In other words, Mulder is perfectly content to dominate amateur tournaments like the American Century. So yeah, Steph Curry is going to have to up his game if he wants to win this thing.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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