LAKE FOREST, Ill. – History was made Thursday in the U.S. Mid-Amateur final. While accomplished mid-amateurs Jay Sigel and Nathan Smith used to be in the same exclusive club, that’s not true anymore. Smith has moved on.
Smith, in fact, has moved up to the top rung of the U.S. Mid-Amateur’s elite. With a thrilling 1-up victory Thursday over Garrett Rank, 25, of Canada, the 34-year-old Smith, of Pittsburgh, captured his unprecedented fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur title at Conway Farms Golf Club.
Before this victory, Smith had shared the distinction of most Mid-Am victories with Sigel. Now he stands alone in record books for this 25-and-over championship, which was first played in 1981.
“It’s pretty surreal, actually,” said Smith, who also won this championship in 2003, ‘09 and ‘10. “Anytime you can say you’ve done something no one else has done, whether it’s in sport or in life, it’s just amazing.
“It just seems that each year has gotten harder, not only the championship match, but each one leading up to it,” Smith said. “I played so many good opponents this week going through my bracket, like Paul Simson and Sean Knapp and Tim Jackson and now Garrett. The competition gets better and better. The breaks don’t always go your way and sometimes you have to make them. I guess that’s why nobody has won four (U.S. Mid-Ams).”
Rank, a 2012 graduate of the University of Waterloo in Canada, also was trying to make U.S. Mid-Am history as the first foreign-born champion as well as the youngest winner. He turned 25 on Sept. 5 and would have upstaged Smith, who holds that distinction from when he won in 2003 at 25 years, 2 months.
“I played great all week,” said Rank, who plans to be back home and on the ice Friday night officiating a game in the Ontario Hockey League. “Sure, I’m disappointed, but I’m sure a couple days down the road I’ll realize what I’ve done this week and take a lot out of it. Sure it would have been nice to win, but, really, second is not too bad.”
Smith, who did not play in this championship in 2004 (injury) and ’05 (getting married), now has four victories in his eight starts. His match-play record in this event is 32-4, a remarkable .889 winning percentage.
“Yeah, that’s hard to believe,” Smith said. “The competition is just so tough. To win four of these championships. . . wow.”
Smith becomes the 16th player in history to win four or more titles in the same USGA Championship.
Under overcast skies, a steady wind and temperatures that fluctuated between the high 50s and low 60s, the final provided a thrilling and classic finish.
Smith was 3 up with six holes to play. Rank, this year’s Canadian Collegiate champion, surged back in full force. He won holes 13-15 on the second 18 with pars to put the match at all square with three to play.
After both made par at No. 16, the 34th hole, Smith again went back on top with a par at the par-3 17th.
Both laid up on the par-5 final hole. Smith’s approach shot came to rest about 20 feet left of the hole, just off the putting surface. Rank, who had not led since the fifth hole of the morning round, hit his third shot to 15 feet below the hole.
Smith’s birdie putt came within 6 inches and was conceded. Rank’s putt to extend the match slid past the hole on the right and Smith was the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion for the third time in the last four years.
“Garrett just kept coming and coming, he’s just that good, that explosive,” Smith said. “It’s like guarding (Michael) Jordan and he gets four points in the first quarter and then gets 28 in the second quarter. You know he won’t be down very long. That’s the way it was with Garrett. I knew he was never going to quit and would make a run.”
The morning round was anything but classic golf. Considering hole concessions, Smith shot a 5-over 76, while Rank posted a 77. That gave Smith a 1-up edge at the lunch break.
Smith went 3 up when he won No. 6 with a bogey and 10 and 11 with pars. Rank came back and won the short 330-yard, par-4 15th, driving the green and rolling in a 40-footer for eagle and then won No. 16 with a par.
Smith won the 20th hole — the par-3 second — with a par after Rank’s tee shot found the left greenside bunker and from there he twice hit over the green before conceding Smith’s 10-foot par putt.
Smith, a member of the last two U.S. Walker Cup teams, then went 3 up with a par on the 24th hole (No. 6). Rank came back and sank a 4-foot birdie putt to win the 27th hole (No. 9), the first time in the match a hole was won with a birdie.
Smith then seemed to put in himself in control when he won the 28th (No. 10) with a par to go 3 up, thus setting the stage for the brief comeback charge by Rank and the thrilling finish.
“I give a lot of credit to my caddie. He’s a warrior, like a horse,” said Smith, whose father Larry was on his bag, just as he has been in each of his son’s three previous U.S. Mid-Am victories.
“This means so much, it’s so special,” said Larry, a 64-year-old retired school teacher. “The older you get the more things like this mean to you. To survive and win a championship like this, it means so much to us.
“This is such a great accomplishment,” said Larry as he fought back the tears. “Obviously, (Nathan’s mother) Vicki and I are just so proud of him.”
For the fourth time, the name Nathan Smith will be etched onto the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Mid-Amateur Trophy. And next April, for the fourth time, Smith will be competing in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.
“Sure you think about (the Masters),” Smith said. “You try not to, but it’s difficult, especially the night before (the final match). I’ll probably think about it more in a couple of weeks or a month.”
Then, smiling broadly and gazing at the championship trophy next to him, Smith added, “Right now, I’m really enjoying this and taking it in.”