LAKE FOREST, Ill. – One way or the other, U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship history will be made Thursday when Nathan Smith of Pittsburgh and Garrett Rank of Canada square off in the scheduled 36-hole final at Conway Farms Golf Club in the 32nd edition of this national championship for players 25 years and older.
The two made their way to a showdown Wednesday afternoon with semifinal victories. Smith defeated Tim Jackson, 53, of Germantown, Tenn., 3 and 1, while Rank hung on and edged Todd White, 44, of Spartanburg, S.C., 1 up.
As for the history, Smith will be trying to win a record fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur. He won previous titles in 2003, ’09 and ’10 to join Jay Sigel as the only three-time champions. Last year, Smith’s bid at No. 4 – and a record three in a row – came up just short when he lost in the semifinals in 19 holes to eventual champ Randal Lewis.
Rank will be out not only to become the first foreign winner of this championship but the youngest, as well. He turned 25 on Sept. 5, which would make him 25 years and 8 days for Thursday’s final. And whom would he surpass in the record book here? Smith, who won his first title at 25 years, 2 months and 10 days.
“I’m honored to have won this championship three times,” said Smith, a two-time U.S. Walker Cup team member. “A fourth? Well, any time you can say you did something no one else has done, it’s very special. This event has always been very meaningful and special to me, and I’m just so fortunate to have had the success I’ve had in it.”
“I guess both of us will have some extra incentive tomorrow,” Rank said. “It should be a great match. Obviously, I’m pretty excited.”
Then, of course, there’s that other incentive: the winner gaining an invitation to compete next April in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.
The Smith-Jackson match pitted two veteran USGA competitors. Jackson, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and two-time U.S. Walker Cup team member, has played in 47 USGA Championships; Smith has just over 20.
“There was a lot of knowledge out there this afternoon: a pair of grizzled veterans going at it,” Smith said. “It was a good match, and both of us played well.”
When Smith made birdie at No. 9 to square the match, he said, “That was huge, because it gave me a good push to take to the back side.”
He then won No. 11 with par and Nos. 13 and 14 with birdies to go 3 up.
But Jackson wouldn’t fold. He won the 16th with a par, but at the par-3 17th, Smith drained a 10-footer for birdie to close things out.
“He did to me on the back nine what I used to do to people when I was 35 years old,” Jackson said. “Obviously I’m disappointed, but I had a good week. I can take a lot of positives away from here.
“Nathan is probably the best mid-am out here (nationally) now, and I gave him all I had. It just wasn’t enough. He’s just too good of a player.”
Smith has run his U.S. Mid-Amateur match-play record to 31-4.
“I’ve been playing great,” he said, “but the thing is, the more you play in these, the more you realize how tough it is. The quality of competition at this level has improved so much over the years. It just gets tougher and tougher.”
The Rank-White match went back and forth, with neither player holding more than a 1-up lead at any time.
Rank went on top first with a par at No. 4, but White got it back with a birdie at No. 8. Rank, a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo in Canada who earns a paycheck as an official in the Ontario Hockey League, again went 1 up with a par at No. 11.
White answered by winning No. 13 with a par. Rank then won No. 15 with a birdie, only to have White come right back and again square things with a birdie at No. 16.
At the par-5 18th hole, White hit his tee shot into the deep rough left and had to punch out. After Rank hit his second shot into the rough left of the green, White, from 190 yards, hit “one of the best 5-iron shots I’ve hit all week,” to 30 feet from the hole.
Facing a delicate, downhill chip, Rank used a 52-degree wedge and coaxed his ball to within 7 feet. (”It wasn’t a gimme, that’s for sure,” Rank said.) White just missed his birdie try to the left for a conceded par, and Rank rolled in his birdie for the victory.
“I played great, and so did he,” Rank said. “It was just a good match. This afternoon was really a grind. We were halving holes with birdies.
“Right now it’s like everything is a blur. If this is a dream, I haven’t woken up yet. If it’s all the hard work I’ve put in, it’s paying off. All I know is, it’s a lot of fun.”
White, too, thought he played solidly and good enough to win.
“It was a great match, and we both played some outstanding golf,” said White, a high school history teacher. “I made three birdies on the first nine, and he topped two of them.
“Obviously I’m terribly disappointed, for sure. But I can’t be too upset because I played well. I know in a week or so from now I’ll be out playing catch with my nephew and look back on this week and be proud of what I accomplished. This whole week has just been wonderful.”