My Year in Golf: Ron Balicki

Nathan Smith (right) won his fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur on Sept. 13 with father and caddie Larry (left) by his side.

Nathan Smith (right) won his fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur on Sept. 13 with father and caddie Larry (left) by his side.

Editor's note: For our entire "My Year in Golf" series, click here.

• • •

Tears of joy. Tears of heartbreak. Smiles of elation. Frowns of disappointment.

I’ve seen plenty of them all this past year along the travels on my amateur and college tournament trail. And no matter the case, each left a lasting memory in my year in golf.

Topping the tears of joy list had to be the Smith family - dad Larry, mom Vicki and son Nathan.

The family shared and shed those tears in early September at Conway Farms Golf Club shortly after Nathan, 34, of Pittsburgh, scored a 1-up victory over Canada’s Garrett Rank to secure a record fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.

When the 36-hole final match finally came to an end, Vicki made her way onto the 18th green and embraced her son.

“Nathan never cries, but he did this time,” Vicki said shortly afterwards. “We hugged and he broke down. And, of course, so did I.”

Larry has been Nathan’s caddie in each of his U.S. Mid-Amateur victories (2003, ’09, ’10, and ’12). Sitting in the clubhouse about a half hour after play he was asked what this one meant.

Before his first word was spoken, his eyes began to tear up.

“This means so much; it’s so special,” said Larry, 64, a retired schoolteacher. “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. Obviously, Vicki and I are just so proud of him.

“This tournament has made Nathan,” said Larry, who for the past 16 years has been president of his home club, Pinecrest Country Club in Brookville, Pa. “Without this tournament and the success he has had, Nathan doesn’t achieve his goals.”

Touching - and joyous moments - that’s for sure.

Then there was Michael Weaver of the University of California. He shed both sides of those tears during the U.S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

After defeating 2011 NCAA Division I player and freshman of the year Justin Thomas of Alabama, 3 and 2, in the semifinals, which earned him an invitation to the 2013 Masters, Weaver broke down and the tears flowed as he talked with the media.

One day later, his tears were from heartbreak. First he watched his 5-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole that would have given him a victory over Steven Fox and the U.S. Amateur title dip into the hole, only to spin out. That sent the match to extra holes and on the 37th, Fox sank a 15-foot birdie putt to win. There would be no hiding the tears of disappointment and heartbreak from this young man.

On the other end, it was great watching Fox throughout the week as he rose from the realm of obscurity to national champion. Time and again the senior at Chattanooga seemed to overcome the odds and make his way up the ladder. And, when it was all said and done, Fox showed that dreams truly can come true.

Maybe the most enjoyable joyous scene for me in 2012 was watching the University of Texas team celebrate on the 18th green at Riviera Country Club just outside Los Angeles after winning the NCAA Division I Championship. In particular, sharing the moment with my longtime coaching friend John Fields. It was his first NCAA title in his 15th season at the Longhorns’ helm and previous 10 seasons at New Mexico. A long time coming, but well worth it and well deserved.

Of course, on the flip side, was the disappointment on the faces of coach Jay Seawell and his Alabama team which came up just short after one of the best years in school history. Plenty of heartbreak there, but Tide players and coaches showed the class act that they are in dealing with the tough loss.

Talk about handling disappointment and defeat with dignity; that’s what I saw in Jordan Russell, the recent Texas A&M graduate. A native of College Station, Texas, he advanced to the championship match at the Western Amateur but lost 1-up to Chris Williams, a senior at Washington and, at the time, the world’s No. 1 amateur. It was yet another frustrating finish during the summer. Russell came close to winning the Texas State Amateur, only to finish T-5. A couple of weeks later, he led the Northeast Amateur after each of the first three rounds, leading by two shots going into the final 18 holes.

However, he made bogey at the 72nd hole, which created a playoff with Justin Shin, who birdied the final hole. Shin then won the three-hole, aggregate-score playoff. The next month, Russell was in the hunt after three rounds at the Porter Cup, but a closing 3-over 73 left him tied for 18th.

“It just wasn’t to be today, just like it’s been pretty much all summer,” Russell said after the Western Am. “But that’s golf. What can you do? I just have to put it behind me and move on.”

• • •

Yes, I got to see plenty of highs and lows throughout 2012 and got to share in the emotions of joy and heartbreak. Add it all up and it made for a most memorable year.

Speaking of which:

Most Memorable Putt: That would have to be the 30-foot birdie putt which Texas senior Dylan Frittelli knocked in on the 18th hole at Riviera to give the Longhorns a 3-2 victory over Alabama in the title match between the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked teams and give Texas its first NCAA crown since 1972.

Most Memorable Shot: That’s a no-brainer. It came in October from Georgia Tech sophomore Ollie Schniederjans in the final round, on the final hole, in the final group at the U.S. Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia’s Lakeside course.

Schniederjans laced a cut 5-iron shot from 220 yards out on the par-5 closing hole to within 3 feet, sank the downhill putt for eagle, and enabled the Yellow Jackets to complete an amazing comeback and win the title by one shot over defending champion UCLA.

“I’ve hit some pretty clutch shots in the past, but with the team pressure, playing in the last group of the day, with all those fans out there in the skyboxes around the green, that shot was as good as it gets,” Schniederjans said right after signing his scorecard. “It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “This will last me forever. It’s a dream come true.”

Most Memorable Non-Playing Moment: Being there to watch good friend Paul Simson, the 61-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., as he was inducted into the Southern Golf Association Hall of Fame during the Southern Amateur at Chenal Country Club in Arkansas. A well-deserved honor for one of the all-time top amateur players in the country.

• • •

Of course, while traveling the tournament trail, one has to eat. Fortunately most tournaments allow us media types access to the players’ dining area for lunch. And it’s usually a pretty darn good spread.

My top three 2012 lunchtime dining experiences:

1. Southern Amateur and Chenal Country Club in Little Rock, Ark.: Chenal went above the board in providing some great food and a wide variety of choices every day.

2. Northeast Amateur and Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, R.I.: Each year the club puts its best foot forward in this category, and 2012 was no different. The best homemade soups at any event. Oh, yeah, and the breakfast buffet isn’t too bad, either.

3. Exmoor Country Club and the Western Amateur in Highland Park, Ill.: No matter where the Western Golf Association takes its premier amateur event, the food is top notch.

Plenty of tears, good and bad, and some great food to boot. Yes, it was a darn good year.

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