Amateur standout Smith gives you swing drills
Nathan Smith may not make any money for his on-course exploits, but he outperforms many PGA Tour players in at least one category: number of Masters invitations received.
Smith, 32, recently competed in his third Masters (and second in a row).
He shot 75-77 and missed the cut for the third consecutive time. This career amateur, though, has had his share of highlights at the golf season’s first major.
Smith, a Pittsburgh native, was paired with Arnold Palmer for the first two rounds of the 2004 Masters. Last year, Smith was 2 under par and in the lead through his opening 12 holes. He missed the cut by two shots in each of those appearances – not bad for a man with a day job.
“The first time’s a blur,” Smith said. “You blink your eyes, the week goes by. You’re kind of in awe floating around. But it never gets old. It always feels like your first time.”
Smith has never turned pro. He was an NCAA Division III All-American at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania before getting an MBA from Clarion. An investment adviser by trade, he gave a different kind of advice at this year’s Masters. Smith has so much experience at Augusta National that some Tour players were asking him how to play the course.
Smith works with Don Sargent, director of instruction at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, every few weeks. Because of the infrequent visits, Smith has a set of drills that he uses to make the most of his limited time to work on his game.
Smith earned each of his Masters invitations by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur title. He and Jay Sigel are the only two players to win three U.S. Mid-Amateurs. A victory this September at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, would make Smith the first person to win three consecutive Mid-Am titles and give him another chance at becoming the first reigning U.S. Mid-Am champ to make the Masters cut.
Finally playing the weekend would be an honor, of course, but just getting to Augusta as an amateur – especially three times – is an accomplishment.
“It’s everything you think it is and a lot more,” Smith said.
Board drill: Start with the clubhead
A good swing starts with a good takeaway. Smith uses a 2-by-4 to ensure his club gets started on the correct plane.
Smith places the board a couple of inches behind his ball, then pushes it out of the way with the back of the clubhead. “The board’s weight forces him to use his core – instead of just his hands and arms – while turning away from the ball,” Sargent said.
This drill helps teach Smith to start the backswing with the clubhead. “Start the swing from the ground up” is a common tip given by teachers. When he’s swinging poorly, Smith hinges his wrists prematurely, which gets the club swinging outside the target line.
Set drill: Use your core
This drill takes care of the rest of Smith’s backswing. Smith “sets” the club at waist high, pauses, then completes his backswing. At waist high, Smith wants the club shaft to be parallel to his target line and the clubhead perpendicular to the ground.
He completes his backswing by feeling his navel and right shoulder turning in unison around his spine.
This ensures that he uses his core to complete his swing, instead of lifting his arms.
“When my right shoulder, core and chest are turning, I can feel the club rotating along the plane,” Smith said.
Impact bag: Stronger positions
Smith uses an impact bag to improve his point of contact, and it also helps his backswing by forcing him to focus on using his core to turn.
“It gets me in a really strong position at the top,” Smith said. “When you’re going to hit that bag, you have to be in such a strong position at the top of the swing to be able to level a blow.”
The impact bag also keeps Smith from standing up and spinning out in the downswing.
“Your hands are ahead of the ball, and your head stays back,” Smith said. “It almost feels like you’re
keeping your back to the target while you move into the ball, like you’re pushing against someone who’s pushing against your back, as your hands move down.”
Focus on initial aim:
Through the sticks
Smith sets up an alignment stick on each side of his target line, then tries to split the uprights, a drill he learned from former Walker Cup teammate Rickie Fowler.
Players always pay attention to where their ball lands but rarely focus on how it gets there. The sticks help players focus on the ball’s early path.
This drill keeps Smith, who favors a draw, from starting his ball too far right of the target line. Those who hit a fade should try not to start the ball too far left of the target.
Smith’s favorite short-game shot is a low, running chip. He places the ball just in front of his right foot, puts his hands well ahead of the clubhead and maintains that angle throughout the swing. One key: Even though his hands are ahead, he opens the clubface slightly. This does two things: It maintains the club’s loft and keeps the sole from digging in the turf.
When Smith hits a flop shot, he likes to feel like the left wrist starts to fold through impact, which allows the club to pass his hands.
Bunker play: Strengthen game with 6-iron
Think you’re a good bunker player? Try hitting bunker shots with a 6-iron. This drill makes standard bunker shots look easy by comparison, Smith said. It also forces a player to focus on fundamentals.
Smith said he has a tendency to overlook basics such as ball position during long practice sessions. The only way to be successful with the 6-iron is to keep the ball forward in his stance, where it should be during standard sand shots, Smith said. The 6-iron, with its lack of loft and bounce, also forces Smith to
keep the face open through impact, just like a standard sand shot. “If you watch the great bunker players, it’s like they’re lighting a match in the bunker, the club is moving so fast,” Smith said. “That’s what you have to do with the 6-iron. You can’t hesitate. You have to get under the ball quick and have to leave the club under the ball.”