How does this sound for a dream summer?
You win your three major state amateur championships. With your sights set on making the Walker Cup team, you spend the summer chasing the college kids at the usual haunts … Sunnehanna, the Porter Cup, the Northeast and the Western Amateur. Not only do you make the Walker Cup squad, your contributions are a factor. Then you team with a few close friends from home and win the USGA State Team championship. With summer turning to fall, you claim your second U.S. Mid-Amateur championship.
So, Nathan Smith, how do you top that?
“You don’t,” he replied, when asked at the Jones Cup last week.
Part of his 2009 success was calendar-related – the Walker Cup and State Team events are played every other year, and Smith got hot in the right year. Nonetheless, he readily acknowledges that 2009 was a special year, one full of special memories.
The best memory? Holing a no-brainer on the final hole of stroke-play qualifying at the Western Am. With a Walker Cup berth perhaps hanging in the balance, with the sun setting on his 31st birthday and his dad on the bag, Smith gassed one that was headed off the green had it not hit the hole, popped up and disappeared. The gallery roared, and U.S. Walker Cup captain Buddy Marucci had a player with gray in his hair to rely on at Merion.
In many respects, Nathan Smith is a throwback. He is a career amateur, a self-described late bloomer who never seriously considered pro golf. He remembers playing balata golf balls, persimmon woods, and still summons a Wilson 8813 putter “when I can hear the old music coming from it.” He has a wife and a career as an investment counselor in Pittsburgh, and his competitive season generally runs from May to September.
But in other respects, he is a thoroughly modern guy. His sticks are the latest from the well-known brands, he works out in the winter to get in shape for the summer sprint, and he even texts his Walker Cup teammates, all of whom are college-age digital mavens.
The Walker Cup experience clearly was something he cherishes. “The kids” knew that he wasn’t a ceremonial USGA mid-am-aged pick; they’d seen him out on the circuit all summer long, racking up one top 10 after another. By the time the team arrived at Merion, he was not only a part of what Marucci characterized as the closest Walker Cup team ever, but a respected veteran voice and a second set of eyes for the captain.
The two points he earned at Merion helped the U.S. romp, but also served as an adrenaline boost as he moved onto the Mid-Amateur. He rode the momentum all the way to Kiawah Island and collected his second Mid-Am title in the decade of the 2000s. In so doing, he became just the fifth multiple winner of this championship. And he solidified his reputation as America’s pre-eminent amateur.
Smith’s game is characterized by a certain headiness. He is deadly straight off the tee and putts very well, but his real strength is his golf smarts. Titleist’s Jim Ahern, as close an observer of the global amateur game as there is, says Smith “doesn’t make any mistakes. He manages his game very well. He will wear you down in match play.”
So how do you top 2009? You don’t. You savor the memories and move on. There’s still lots to accomplish in golf. Like playing in the Amateur Championship in Great Britain. Like qualifying for, and making the cut, at the U.S. Open. And, perhaps down the road, leading his own Walker Cup squad. Smith rode in the cart on Saturday afternoon at Merion, and he made mental notes all week long about how Marucci prepared himself and his team for the competition. You have to believe Smith is on a very short list of future Walker Cup captains. For now, he looks forward to a return match at Aberdeen in 2011.
More pertinent, there’s a date at The Masters on his calendar in a few weeks. It will be his second appearance at Augusta, and Smith clearly views this as a reward for a memorable season. So, maybe you really can top 2009 after all.