Smith gets 11th-hour reprieve at U.S. Amateur

Nathan Smith during the 2014 U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – When a golfer plays multiple days and misses by a single shot, it can sting for a while (just ask Phil Mickelson, Sunday’s runner-up at the PGA Championship). But there also are days you clear the sweat from your brow, sit the hat high atop your head, glare back at a big brawny golf course you just took on, and know in your heart you did pretty much everything you could.

Those were the sentiments pulsating through the veins of Pennsylvanian Nathan Smith, the four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who was competing against the young bucks at Atlanta Athletic Club in the 114th U.S. Amateur. On his 36th hole of stroke-play qualifying, the par-4 ninth at AAC’s Highlands course, the 36-year-old Smith stuffed a 9-iron to 7 feet, a green-light opportunity to knock down his lone birdie of the afternoon.

Funny, but it would have been enough had it gone in, but it didn’t, sliding left. He tapped in for par, his 16th of the day against two bogeys, and knew in his gut that his second-round 73 and his 2-over 145 total likely wasn’t going to be enough to garner one of 64 spots into match play. When you’ve been around top amateur golf as long as Smith has, you have a sixth sense about these things.

“That was a pretty big putt,” he’d say as he left the green. His mom, Vicki, gave her son a hug and told him, “You played your heart out.”

“I did,” Nathan said.

Well, fortunately for Smith, there would be the equivalent of a governor’s reprieve a few hours later. Smith isn’t done quite yet. His 145 total, which was outside the top 64 when he finished, tied for 61st, good enough to get Smith into a 17-for-4 spot playoff beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday on AAC’s Riverside course (holes 1-8-9).

If you think those odds (17 for 4) aren’t that great, well, they’re better for him than they were in 2011 at Erin Hills, when Smith fell short in a 20-for-4 playoff.

He is trying to advance to match play for the first time since Southern Hills in 2009. (Smith has advanced out of qualifying to match play on four occasions, making it to the round of 16 in 2000). The former All-American from Div. III Allegheny College who has played in four Masters gave himself a few decent looks on the way to the clubhouse, but nothing was more enticing than that last one. It didn’t go, so instead of sleeping in an extra hour, he still has some work to do.

Regardless, 7 feet cannot begin to capture how Smith had competed for two days on two very big ballparks – AAC’s Highlands and Riverside courses, both of which tip the scales around 7,400 yards (and Highlands is a par 71). Smith birdied three of his first six holes at Riverside on Day 1; over his next 30 holes, there wasn’t a birdie to be found.

“I’ve played in 14 of these,” Smith said, “and I can’t remember one where both courses are championship caliber, and pretty even, comparatively. It’s a pretty special place.”

That it is, as AAC has an incredibly rich history in amateur golf. Bobby Jones, a winner of 13 majors, had a strong affiliation with the AAC, as did three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Alexa Stirling, the two of the them comprising half of the famed Dixie Whiz Kids of decades ago.

Smith, who works as an investment advisor, has been playing well this summer. He had a close call at the Sunnehanna Amateur, narrowly missing a playoff, and has played well in a few state events. The U.S. Mid-Am, which he’ll try to win for a record fifth time this fall, will be played only a few hours from his home in Pittsburgh, at Saucon Valley. So he’s looking forward to that. But he certainly wasn’t looking past anything during his five days at AAC.

“Anytime you can play a USGA event, it’s going to help your game,” he said. “I’m here just trying to make match play. It gets you ready for the Mid-Am, but I’m not warming up for anything. I’m here to compete, and now … I have that feeling of ‘almost.’ ”

Sometimes “almost” isn’t all that bad. Nathan’s father, Larry Smith, who has toted his son’s bag at Augusta National, made his way around the Highlands course Tuesday on a newly replaced right knee, and was living and dying with his son’s every missed putt.

“Oh, it’s been one of those days,” he said as Nathan stood over a 20-footer at No. 8, his 17th hole of the day, which missed just right. “You know, when there’s some sort of seal over the hole, and the ball just won’t go in.”

Both father and son hope that won’t be the case when Nathan returns on Wednesday morning.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification