2000: Smith braves a visit to old demons
La Quinta, Calif.
As a spectator at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, he was revisiting his demons and reaffirming his triumph over the forces of evil. “The Q-School is a dangerous place to be,” said Jerry Smith, who has played in enough of them to know.
If you are Jerry Smith, this is what you have sacrificed in your pursuit of the PGA Tour:
You grew up in Iowa, where your family boasts four generations of golf course superintendents. You won the Iowa Amateur and turned pro, although ultimately you played so much golf in Asia, so far from the heartland, you began to think your name was Jerry Wong Lee Smith. You first went there in 1988. One day you woke up, it was 1997, you were still there.
You followed your dream to the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan. You won in China and Guam. You got sick from the food or water in just about every country you visited.
You kept returning to the United States for Q-School, you kept missing your card. When you finally moved back to your wife’s hometown, you became the unofficial touring pro for a nine-hole layout in the middle of the Illinois cornfields. Its official name was Taylorville Country Club, but the local jokesmiths called it “Giovagnoli’s Jungle” for dentist David Giovagnoli, who planted thousands of trees, transforming a prairie into a ball-eating Asian forest. You were right at home.
In a testament to the resilient human spirit, you never surrendered your vision of playing the big tour. In 1999, at age 35, you tied for seventh in the Q-School. In 2000, you finished solo ninth in the GTE Byron Nelson Classic and ended up 118th on the PGA Tour money list with $406,591.
Brian Wilson, your former college teammate at Baylor University, fired six consecutive rounds of 68 or better to tie for second in this year’s Q-School. Yet even this celebration couldn’t keep the demons, the memories, out of your mind.
You were in the Philippines, and you were trying to practice. The range was mud. There was zero grass. A Philippino seated on the ground would drop some dirt in a small pile, form it into a launching pad, then place your ball on top of it. The balls were so bad that some had no dimples. At times they would dive straight down into the ground or veer left or right like a drunken driver.
Flying from the United States to Asia, one of your carry-ons was a shag bag. It was filled with 12 dozen new Titleists. After use in tournaments, these would become your precious shag balls.
The heat and humidity were suffocating, but there was no bottled water on the tees. You would load your caddie – as you would a camel – with big bottles of water. It was tough. It was tougher still when the caddie was your wife, Jennifer.
Spectators would watch the leaders or local favorites. “If you were in the middle of the pack,” Smith recalled, “you felt like you were out there playing a casual round with your buddies. The only thing was, you couldn’t understand them.”
With two victories in Asia, Smith maintained hope. But it was his 1995 marriage that turned him into a player. “Jennifer,” he said simply, “has made all the difference.”
Experience in golf and life are unmistakable ingredients for success at the Q-School. Of the 36 graduates this year, 21 were 30 or older. Young hotshots tend to get overheated. There was a great temptation to tell 21-year-old David Gossett, who flamed with 59 in one round yet didn’t make it, that he should have stayed in college rather than follow the two-year exit strategy of Tiger Woods.
Jerry and Jennifer Smith now live in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he works diligently on his game with instructor Pam Barnett at Moon Valley Country Club. Barnett, a former LPGA player, is a disciple of legendary club professional Manuel de la Torre of Milwaukee Country Club.
“I like to keep things simple,” Smith explained. “I didn’t make any swing changes all year – just my putting, and that got me in trouble.”
Smith is now trying to solidify his putting. He recently visited Scott Cameron at his Titleist putting studio in Carlsbad, Calif. Not only has Cameron emerged as a leading designer of putters, but he also has become the mad scientist of the putting stroke. Cameron changed Smith’s address position, placing his hands directly over the ball rather than slightly behind it.
“I did not putt well this year,” Smith said. “I was 147th on Tour (in putts per green hit in regulation).”
He spoke softly. He seemed wary as he vowed to improve his putting. He knew, as all golfers know, that the demons are always there, listening.