Recently widowed, Smith returns to golf

Chris Smith, back at work at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.

This story appears in the Feb. 26, 2010 issue of Golfweek.

• • • 

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Chris Smith slipped between the ropes. It was an effortless transition back to his office, but one that hardly went unnoticed. Players lined up to greet him. Rules officials hopped out of their carts to hug him. They welcomed back a man playing competitive golf for the first time in eight months.

There were nerves, there was rust, but that was to be expected. Smith, 40, hardly has played golf since June outside of a Wednesday men’s league.

So he wasn’t too disheartened that he missed the cut at the Mayakoba Golf Classic by one stroke.

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Chris Smith gets a greeting from PGA Tour rules official Michael Combs.

“Normally I’d be doing laundry now,” Smith said.

Smith’s version of normal was rocked when his wife, Beth, died on Father’s Day in a horrific car crash. His 16-year-old daughter was at the wheel. She and her 12-year-old brother survived. Smith figured his playing career was over. Taking care of the kids, that was his job now. But there he was, fixing divots instead of dinner, wiping dew off his putter instead of crumbs off the table, all at the urging of his children, in what he referred to as another step back to normal.

“Whatever that is,” Smith said.

For the past eight months, he has been a full-time parent. Smith cooks, takes the kids to school, folds laundry, does the dishes, the dusting, and drives the kids to cheerleading and basketball practice.

“I’m a domestic diva,” he said. “That’s my life now.”

These were duties handled with aplomb by Beth, a beautiful blonde with a smile to match whom he met at Ohio State during his sophomore year. They married in 1991. Bouncing between the PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour, Smith averaged 30-plus events per year since his children were born. It wasn’t until Smith straightened the house that he realized Beth’s life revolved around their children.

“I took so much for granted,” Smith said. “Let’s call it what it was: She was a stay-at-home single parent.” Only now has Smith learned that doing so is “the hardest, most thankless job on the planet.” That’s why he pulled good friend Cameron Beckman aside and urged him to thank his wife for raising his children while he was away from home.

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It was during such an occasion that Smith’s life changed on June 21. He played in a golf outing that morning in Chicago after missing the cut at the Nationwide Tour’s Fort Smith Classic in Arkansas. When Smith turned his cell phone on, the first message was from an accident witness, the next from the hospital. He never listened to the rest.

His wife and kids were headed home to Peru, Ind., from a Father’s Day visit with Beth’s family in Toledo, Ohio. Abigail was driving, Beth sat in the passenger seat and Cameron in the back seat of their Ford Expedition.

At approximately 11:35 a.m., Smith said his daughter passed a car in the left lane driving southbound on Interstate 69 at 70 mph. She lost control when she drove onto the rumble strips, overcorrected and veered across the median near the 151-mile marker in Angola, Ind.

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Chris Smith is presented with the trophy by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani after winning the 2002 Buick Classic. His wife, Beth, looks on

The SUV collided with a Greyhound bus carrying the London Silverbacks, a Canadian semi-pro football team.

Smith’s children were hospitalized for 16 days. Abigail shattered her right hip; Cameron broke his right arm and leg and suffered third-degree burns.

“It’s a miracle that my kids lived,” Smith said.

Sgt. Phil Nott of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Department observed the tire marks at the scene of the accident and had an Indiana State Police expert examine the bus, according to the Herald Republican of Angola. No mechanical issues were found.

News of the accident spread quickly within the golf community. Players at The Travelers Championship wore black ribbons. Caddies at the Nationwide Tour event in Bridgeport, W.Va., sported “Chris Smith” on the back of their bibs instead of their player’s name, and players wore Smith’s lucky number 15.

“Normally we try to beat the crap out of each other,” Jay Delsing said. “But when something like this happens, it’s all secondary.”

Delsing jumped into his car one day and drove five hours to Smith’s home, bought up the butcher’s shop, stocked Smith’s fridge and freezer and taught him how to make pancakes. Jerry Kelly bought Smith’s kids new Mac Book Pros. Mac Fritz, vice president of player promotion for Acushnet Co., and Ted Bishop, the director of golf at The Legends of Indiana Golf Club, arranged the inaugural Beth Smith Memorial Golf Tournament on Aug. 7. A total of 288 golfers participated in the double shotgun-start outing. They raised more than $140,000 to help the family.

While such support has been heartwarming, it’s Smith’s parents and two older brothers, who live within 400 yards of one another, who have been his backbone. In spite of all the upheaval, Smith said his family has grown closer. Not long ago, Smith told Abigail, 17, that he had spent more time with her in the past four months than he had previously in her entire life. He has treasured eating lunch with his children at school. Smith did so for a month until Abigail told him it was “weird” that dad dined at the school cafeteria.

“They inspire me,” Smith said.

They also hounded him about playing golf again, until on one late January winter day in Peru, when spring seemed an implausible prospect, Smith committed to the Mayakoba Classic and a handful of other tournaments. As soon as Kelly read Smith’s text with the news, Kelly began lobbying for sponsor exemptions.

On the Sunday before the Mayakoba, already feeling a touch of nerves, Smith decided that he wanted his dad, Terry, to caddie.

Dad was delighted but found that his passport had expired.

Smith’s father arrived on Wednesday, leaving Grandma in charge of the kids, and delivered a handwritten letter from each of them addressed to “El Padre.”

“Abigail wrote, ‘You’re a golfer, that’s who you are and that’s who we want you to be,’ ” Smith said. “She’s right.”

Then there was this fatherly advice: “I told him the worst thing that can happen is you miss the cut,” Terry Smith said, “and you’ve missed a lot of cuts already.”

They both laughed.

• • • 

Smith’s playing career has been a study in perseverance and patience.

In 1997, he earned the first “battlefield promotion” for winning three Nationwide Tour tournaments in the same year. When Smith was reminded that it took him until his 148th Tour start before winning his only title, at the 2002 Buick Classic, he said, “Was that all?”

But what a memory: On the morning of the final round, Beth surprised her husband by flying in.

“This morning, I just woke up early, and here I am,” Beth told reporters that day. “This is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. I think I should do it more often.”

In the scoring area, Loren Roberts, who finished runner-up, wrapped an arm around Smith and said, “Always remember this feeling.”

After finishing all the responsibilities of a champion, Smith arrived at his hotel late that night. The kitchen, the bar and room service were all closed. He couldn’t even get a beer so as a last resort he ordered Domino’s. Beth fell asleep. He sat up eating pizza, drinking a 2-liter Coke and watching his highlights in silence.

“I so have to win again because that was the worst victory celebration ever,” Smith said.

There it is, the voice of a golfer still hungry for more. Playing golf presents a conundrum for Smith: he wants to compete, but playing means being away from his children. Can he have both? Abigail and Cameron’s physical injuries have healed; their heartache will mend only with time. The road-warrior days, he said, are over. So is chasing the dream on the Nationwide Tour. If he can get 10 to 15 PGA Tour starts a year until Cameron leaves for college, Smith will be satisfied.

Life, he has learned, is more than a golf score.

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