RICHMOND, Texas – Nathan Smith’s amazing run in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship finally came to an end Wednesday in the semifinals.
In spite of a gutsy run at the end, Smith was eliminated – for the first time since 2008 – by Randal Lewis in 19 holes at Shadow Hawk Golf Club.
Lewis will take on Kenny Cook, a 6-and-5 winner over John Engler, in Thursday’s 36-hole final as the 54-year-old tries to become this event’s oldest champion. George Zahringer was 49 when he won the title in 2002.
Smith, 33, a financial adviser from Pittsburgh, was seeking to make U.S. Mid-Amateur history by winning his third consecutive title and fourth overall in this national tournament for players 25 years and older. His loss to Lewis, also a financial adviser, from Alma, Mich., ended his record streak of 16 consecutive matches won.
“That is it. That’s all she wrote,” said a tired Smith after the match. “It was a great run and a fun couple of years (as champion) and a fun couple of weeks (referring to the Walker Cup the week before). I wish I could have finished it off this week, but I just ran out of gas.”
Cook, 31, an accountant for the Department of Defense from Noblesville, Ind., took the easier road to the final when he jumped out to an early lead and cruised past Engler, 32, of Augusta, Ga.
Cook has now played 80 holes in his five matches and has trailed only once – on the first hole of his Round of 16 match.
He was in total control in the semifinals, winning Nos. 2 and 4 with birdies, No. 7 with a par and the eighth with a birdie to go 4 up. A par at the 10th put him 5 up, and he closed things out with a birdie at No. 13.
“Obviously, I played very well. I kept putting myself in position to make shots and kept giving myself birdie opportunities,” said Cook, who is playing in just his second U.S. Mid-Amateur. “I’ve felt comfortable all week and have been able to hit quality shots off the tee and to the green.”
For the most part, Cook is an unknown within golf circles, even within his home state of Indiana. He doesn’t even compete in state amateurs or opens, playing in a few four-ball competitions.
“I work 40 hours a week and really don’t get to play that much,” Cook said. “Financially and time wise, I just can’t get out and play (in competition) very often. But I’ve been playing golf since I was 6 and did well in college (Ball State, Class of 2003), so from my standpoint, I feel I can play some pretty good golf. I’ve won some things, but let’s face it: no one knows who Kenny Cook is.”
That is probably changing, and will definitely change should he manage to beat Lewis in the final and claim the champion’s Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Trophy, plus the likely winner’s invitation to next year’s Masters.
But his road won’t be easy, as Lewis has proved to be one gutsy performer. He certainly showed that Wednesday when he took down this year’s qualifying medalist and No. 1 seed Mike McCaffrey in the quarterfinals, 3 and 1, and then held off Smith’s late charge.
Lewis quickly went 2 up when he won the third hole with a par and fourth with a birdie. Smith got one back with a par at the fifth, but Lewis birdied No. 9 to make the turn, 2 up.
Smith won the 11th, Lewis the 12th and Smith the 15th. Lewis was 1 up going to the par-5 18th, but Smith drained an 18-foot putt for eagle to send the match back to No. 1, also a par 5.
Smith, after a tee shot in the right rough, hit his 135-yard approach shot to 30 feet while Lewis, from 60 yards out, hit a lob wedge shot to within 4 feet. After Smith just missed his birdie attempt, Lewis knocked in his putt for the win.
“Nathan is a very good player, and I knew I had to do something special to beat him,” Lewis said. “It didn’t surprise me when he holed that putt for eagle at 18. This was just one heck of a match. I got pretty tired out there and didn’t hit every shot solid, but obviously I’m pleased to be going to the final (match) again.”
Lewis advanced to the title match at the 1996 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Conn. Interesting enough, he lost that to another player from Indiana, John “Spider” Miller, who won the then-18-hole final, 3 and 2.
Lewis also was a semifinalist in 1999 at Old Warson Golf Club in St. Louis, where he lost to Jerry Courville, 1 up, in what he says “was one of the best matches I’ve ever played.”
Now he has a chance to go all the way and knows it may very well be his final opportunity at the pre-senior amateur level.
“I know it is so hard to get to a USGA final, and especially in something like this at my age,” Lewis said. “I realize this is probably my last chance. Heck, I’m anxious to turn 55 (May 2012) and start playing senior golf.”
With a victory Thursday, Lewis will have more to think about than what senior events he might be entering. He would have one where he would not only be taking on the young guys, but they would be the best in the world at the Masters.
“I learned from the last time (1996) to not start thinking about that,” he said. “What I need to do is concentrate on what I have to do in that match, stay patient, and keep playing like I’ve been playing all week. If I can do that, everything else will take care of itself.”