Nothing on his resume mentioned even a whisper of golf ability, but Jesse Smith figured he had to seize the moment.
“I went up to Braden Houston and said, ‘I’d love to play golf for you,’ “ Smith said. “And he looked at me like I had two heads.”
Actually, what Smith had was one healthy arm; the other was in a sling at the time. His confidence, however, was intact.
Also working in Smith’s favor was the occasion. It was called a “Friends of New Hampshire Hockey” event, and if you know the landscape, how the appeal of hockey commands attention in the Northeast and how few colleges have a following as rabid as the UNH Wildcats’, it’s easily explained that it was a circle of friends.
Houston had starred in hockey at UNH in the years before Guy Smith, a beloved forward who was in everyone’s thoughts that day. Smith, at age 44, had died just a few years earlier, and these UNH hockey friends weren’t going to forget their teammate, their brother-in-arms.
If it meant humoring Smith’s 18-year-old son with the big dreams, Houston – then the head golf coach at Colgate – would do it. Come on out, he said. It’s a hockey thing, this sticking together, teammates forever. The only thing is, several months later, the campus in Hamilton, N.Y., was buzzing, students were back, golf was under way, and Houston couldn’t quite believe it.
His old friend’s son – the kid who admittedly “never had an amateur career” – was making his dream come true. He was a walk-on with more than heart; he had talent.
For four years, Smith played for coach Houston, and though Colgate never would be mistaken for Oklahoma State or Wake Forest in collegiate golf circles, “it was Division I golf, it was fun and it was a great experience,” Smith said.
It also fueled another Smith dream: professional golf. He took it with him when he graduated from Colgate in 2003. Although he has put the game on hold occasionally and worked other jobs to refuel his coffers, Smith has kept the game close to his heart. The “Dirt Circuit” is what he and many mini-tour regulars call the tours that keep them busy. “Hooters, eGolf, Gateway, Moonlight, Golden Bear, Fore the Players . . . I’ve played them all,” Smith said.
Forgettable, all of the stops, at least until just a few days ago when Smith’s dream finally was rejuvenated. There had been two birdies and a bogey in a quiet 1-under 70 at Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., in the morning, but on his second hole in the afternoon round, the shortish par-4 11th at Old Oaks Country Club, Smith had short-sided himself on his drive and faced a delicate lob wedge out of rough, over a bunker, to a small sliver of green.
“Fifteen feet was the best you could hope for,” Smith said.
Perfect is what he delivered. A hole-out eagle. Suddenly, Smith was 3 under and knew that he was in contention to grab one of four spots into the U.S. Open. It was difficult to say which was running faster, his heart or his mind, but in his caddie/swing coach David Glenz, Smith has the perfect mentor.
“He always knows the right thing to say,” Smith said.
When he held together to shoot 3-under 67 and finish at 4-under 137, the right thing to say to Smith was, “Welcome to Merion, kid.” Finally, after years of trying, the 33-year-old without a minute of PGA Tour experience had shared medalist honors to earn a ticket to the U.S. Open.
Up in New Hampshire, particularly the Durham area where UNH dominates, something else probably has been said to Smith during the past few days, something to the effect of “your father would be proud of you.”
He could skate and he could score, and Guy Smith let that talent carry him from UNH into the World Hockey League, where he played two seasons for the New England Whalers. Returning to his education, he became a veterinarian, settled into a life not far from UNH and devoted so much of his time to son Jesse.
Though baseball is the sport that captivated Jesse, he was inspired to return to hockey when he watched his father coach the high school team to the state final. The day of a game at UNH’s Whittemore Center, Jesse got out of the car and headed inside the rink. Guy Smith parked the car but never made it to the game. With little warning and no way to stop it, he suffered a heart attack in the car. Jesse Smith’s world was upside down and inside out.
“I quit baseball when he passed away,” Smith said. “Baseball had been what we had done nonstop.”
A teenager could have traveled any number of roads in such a circumstance, but Smith chose the golf course. “I had been introduced to golf, but wasn’t serious about it. But looking back now, I think it was a form of therapy for me, to get away. The golf course was a quiet place where I could deal with his death.”
Guy Smith had been born in Buffalo, but as a full-blooded Mohawk, he spent much of his childhood on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Ontario. He passed on his pride of his American Indian heritage, and in recent years Jesse Smith has re-connected with relatives at Six Nations. “I actually lived up there last year with them while I played the Canadian (PGA) Tour.”
The connection to his heritage led Jesse Smith to call Notah Begay last year. Prepared to leave a voice mail, Smith was stunned when Begay answered the call and not only listened to a tale of frustration from a struggling professional, but offered advice. They’ve become friends, and when the news of what happened in Purchase made the rounds, one of the first calls to Smith was from Begay.
Smith had planned to be in Victoria, British Columbia, for the opening tournament on the PGA Tour Canada schedule. No longer, however. Instead, he’s fielding advice on where to stay near Merion and phoning USGA types to get answers about how many tickets, all the sorts of things he might have dreamed about, not knowing it would come true.
“It really is a great feeling,” he said. “A bit overwhelming, but I’m dealing with that now and it’s all positives.”
• • •
Undoubtedly, there are folks still in shock over Tiger Woods’ performance at the Memorial. Finishing T-65 is something mere mortals do, not him.
Given that it was his “tuneup” before the season’s second major championship, the intrigue is focused on how he’ll bounce back. Not that he hasn’t defied conventional reason his entire career, what with an unprecedented stretch of superior play, but Woods has not shined in the majors after having finished poorly in his tuneup.
Now this number alone speaks to how brilliant a performer he has been: Nine. Only nine times previously has Woods finished T-30 or worse in the tournament immediately before a major. But on only two of those occasions has he bounced back to win the major – in 2005 he won the Masters after having finished T-53 in The Players, and in 1997 he steamrolled at Augusta after having been T-31 in The Players.
Far more often, Woods has won the tuneup before a Masters: a whopping 19 times, to be exact. In those cases, Woods has followed with a victory in a major four times.
The 2009 season remains the most fascinating in many respects. Woods won his tuneup tournament before each of the four major championships, yet did not win any of the big ones. He was T-6 at the Masters, after having won Bay Hill. He was T-6 at the U.S. Open, after having won the Memorial. He missed the cut in the Open Championship at Turnberry, after having won the AT&T National. He finished second to Y.E. Yang in the PGA, after having won Bridgestone.
• • •
It’s hard to say what is more infuriating: professional golfers who don’t know the rules or those who refuse to read them when the rules sheet is handed to them.
To make a big story out of Lee Janzen’s disqualification at the U.S. Open qualifier in Rockville, Md., was a bit much. He opened with a 75, for goodness sakes, and would have needed to shoot 60 to secure the last spot.
The fact that he got disqualified before his second 18 when it was discovered he wore metal spikes didn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy and hardly any of the coverage it received. There was no need for anyone in the media to go into Woodward-and-Bernstein mode and ask the USGA for a copy of the letter sent to players; all one had to do was go to USGA.org and refer to the section on championships. There, all of the ground rules and criteria were spelled out, and very prominent was the one about footwear. Only three of the 11 sectional sites allowed for metal spikes – Columbus and Springfield in Ohio, and the one in Memphis.
Oh, and the information had been on the website since early March, so there was no excuse for anyone not to know about the footwear policy.
Janzen may own two U.S. Open titles, but he owes this DQ to his own ignorance.
Janzen told PGATour.com that since 2009 he has done the qualifier at Columbus or Memphis, where there are no footwear restrictions. Ah, but Lee, Rockville isn’t Columbus or Memphis, and so he painfully discovered what happens when one makes assumptions.
“Considering I’ve played professional tournaments every week for 24 years now, I had no reason (to look at the rules sheet) to see if I was conforming,” Janzen said.
Maybe he’ll change that attitude going forward, especially considering that plenty of his competitors were aware of the no-metal policy.
• • •
A round of applause for a trio of golfers who successfully navigated two 36-hole Open qualifiers within a month: Josh Teater, Robert Karlsson and Luke Guthrie.
Teater, who quietly is constructing a solid PGA Tour resume, was medalist at International Final Qualifying for the Open Championship on May 13 in Plano, Texas, then missed a share of medalist honors by a stroke in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier Monday in Columbus, Ohio.
Considering he shot 64-69 in Texas, 63-71 in Ohio and was a smooth 17 under, you’d have to say the quiet Kentuckian was a qualified success, for sure.
Karlsson wasn’t too far behind. He shot 67-69 in Texas, then made it through in a playoff, and went for 66-68 to tie Teater and two others for second place in Ohio. It’s a nice little reward for the personable Swede, who is starting to look more like the solid world-class player he was for years.
As for Guthrie, the 23-year-old played his four qualifying rounds in 8 under, shooting 65-71 in Texas and 67-69 in Ohio. But it didn’t come easily at either site as Guthrie twice had to go into a playoff. He survived a four-for-three, one-hole test in Plano, then was one of seven to advance out of an 11-way playoff in Ohio.
As for those who had ridden the entire spectrum of emotions in these qualifiers, several stand out. Aaron Baddeley, for instance, shot 70-81 to miss by a mile at the Open Championship bid, but with 67-69 he easily advanced in Ohio. The Aussie played his last five holes in 5 under (birdie, par, eagle, par, birdie).
Doug LaBelle II and Charley Hoffman withdrew without finishing their IFQ in Texas, then made it into the U.S. Open.
And to prove that this game doesn’t make sense sometimes, there’s Brendan Steele.
He has missed the cut in each of his last four starts, going 31 over in those eight rounds, including 79-81 at the Memorial. Yet he then stepped in at Columbus, shot 67-68 and qualified for his first U.S. Open.
• • •
A par 4 of swing thoughts while standing on the tee, waiting for the wind gusts to settle down:
• “We didn’t hit that many bad shots starting out the day, and the next thing you know we are quite a few over par,” Woods said after a third-round 79 at The Memorial. We? Was he playing a foursomes match with Joe LaCava that day?
• Vintage Karrie Webb vs. vintage Annika Sorenstam? Methinks Webb.
• There’s something unsettling about billing it as “The Longest Day.” Good gracious, it’s a U.S. Open qualifier, yes, but it’s only golf. Fun golf. Different golf. Pressure golf. But still, it’s golf, not some sort of covert mission through the desert to find enemy forces and rescue troops. For a good many of the competitors, it’s “The Quickest Day,” a brisk 18, sign, and WD, so let’s ditch the goofy title.
• Ian Poulter has far more Ferraris than he does good 2013 tournaments. That’s not a good thing.
• • •
When it comes to one of the true wonders of the PGA Tour landscape, Vijay Singh, it’s imperative that you remember not to underestimate his capabilities. There is, as they say, some history. But it sure does look like time finally has caught up with the big man from Fiji.
Having ended 2012 with 12 successive cuts made, four of them top 10s, Singh has struggled this season, especially of late. He hasn’t played into Sunday in any of his last five tournaments and hasn’t been under par for a tournament since early February at Pebble Beach. For his last nine tournaments, Singh is 27 over in 27 rounds, just five of them sub-70 efforts.
His best finish this season is a T-20.
Then again, he has scored a decisive win in the infamous deer-antler-spray case, and he’s looking for another in his lawsuit against the PGA Tour, so 2013 hasn’t been a total wash.
• • •
Given how well he handled a demanding Olympic Course last summer in winning the U.S. Open and the way in which he has played his home course, Quail Hollow, effectively, it’s surprising to see how Webb Simpson has struggled at Muirfield Village.
But he went 75-76 at this year’s Memorial and now has missed the cut in three of five starts there. Simpson has broken par four times in 14 rounds and been sub-70 just once.
They were unbeatable at the recent Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf, so why not try and carry their magic over for the upcoming CVS Charity Classic? We’re talking Jeff Sluman and Brad Faxon, who as co-hosts of the festivities at Faxon’s home course, Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, cannot be blamed for fitting himself with a comfortable partner.
Not that Sluman-Faxon won’t have stiff competition, because some quality teams will tee it up in the 15th annual event June 24-25. Most notably, Bubba Watson-Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker-Bo Van Pelt and Louis Oosthuizen-Nick Price.
The Haas boys again will take part, though father Jay will team with Morgan Pressel and son Bill Haas with co-host Billy Andrade, while Peter Jacobsen will play with Fuzzy Zoeller.
Pressel will be one of four women involved this year, as Juli Inkster (with Russell Henley), Lexi Thompson (with Michael Thompson, no relation), and Annika Sorenstam (with Billy Horschel) all make return appearances.