JUNO BEACH, FLORIDA | A couple of days prior to the Masters, Nathan Smith had trouble keeping up with the calls and messages. Scores of family and friends reached out with photos of themselves at Augusta National or questions about which player Smith fancied to win the green jacket.
Some of them, bless their ignorance, wondered why Smith chose not to play this year.
“I tell them, ‘Oh no, I would rather be working this week,’ ” Smith joked. “You know it is bad when you have family members in the past who have said, ‘Well, we can’t watch you play at Augusta this year but we will go next year.’ What are you talking about? Getting there is hard.”
Smith has these conversations because, having won the U.S. Mid-Amateur a record four times – including three in four years from 2009-12 – the 40-year-old from Pittsburgh earned four Masters invitations, making his trips down Magnolia Lane seem like a common occurrence. He made a difficult accomplishment look easy, spoiling those around him.
He may have spoiled himself, too.
“It didn’t sink in because (winning) happened three out of four years, and you are in the mindset of trying to get back there,” Smith said of his frequent trips to the Masters. “My dad is in his 70s now and if I were to win a Mid-Am now, he probably couldn’t caddie for me at Augusta. But I was fortunate to have that earlier. You don’t always realize it at the time because you are running the gauntlet but as you get further away from it and the years go by, you realize those are some of the greatest moments ever. You watch the Masters on TV and you think, ‘Did we really do that?’”
Smith, in the field of this week’s Coleman Invitational at Seminole Golf Club, is the quintessential mid-amateur who has never ventured into professional golf. Six years removed from his last Masters appearance, he admits he will have a difficult time getting back. He is still a superb player – look at his back-to-back victories the past two years in the Pennsylvania Amateur Match Play Championship – but the complexion of the mid-am game has changed rapidly as Smith, more of a control player who doesn’t rely on prodigious length, gets further away from the minimum age requirement of 25.
“With the Mid-Am victories and the four Masters and the three Walker Cups in a row, sometimes you have to mentally trick yourself to get up for basically any other golf event.” – Nathan Smith
Anyone who follows amateur golf closely will recognize a reality. The professional game is deeper and more competitive than ever, which filters into the amateur game by way of reinstatement. The examples are everywhere. Last year’s Coleman Invitational winner, Michael Muehr, made 90 cuts on PGA and Web.com tours in his previous life as a professional. Last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, Kevin O’Connell, is a former professional who plans on re-entering that arena in the not-too-distant future.
Increased competition from former professionals underscores the reality that the days of someone like Smith winning three U.S. Mid-Amateurs in four years are potentially over. At least they are far less likely than they were.
“There’s a lot more to play for with the Mid-Am now,” Smith said. “You’ve got the invitation to the U.S. Open and Masters, you have the Walker Cup on the line. And also, you have some of the reinstated guys, because it is so tough to make it professionally, there is a spillover effect to the mid-am game. I feel fortunate that I had all of those experiences because it continues to get tougher.”
Along with his U.S. Mid-Amateur victories, Smith’s greatest accomplishment may have been playing in three consecutive Walker Cups between (2009, ’11, ’13). It’s tough for a mid-am to make the Walker Cup team with so many stellar college players seemingly minutes away from ripping up the PGA Tour. Smith is grateful to have had the opportunity but is now satisfied with the next chapter of his golf life, in which he spends more time bonding with fellow mid-amateurs at tournaments such as the Coleman.
“At times it felt like you were running for an election,” Smith said of trying to earn a Walker Cup spot. “It’s a two-year process and you wonder, ‘Well is it worth doing it again?’ So I have to give so much credit to my wife, Nicole, for encouraging me to keep going at it. You kind of had to run the gauntlet of playing Sunnehanna, Northeast, Porter Cup, Western, Southern, the Players (Amateur) and then you kind of had to make a statement at the U.S. Amateur. And then being a mid-am, you had to separate yourself on the mid-am level. It was just a lot of pressure throughout the course of my career, but it was most fun part of my life.”
Then Smith said something that every 40-year-old man probably has said or thought numerous times. “I would go back in a second.”
It’s easy to assume the game comes easy to players such as Smith. Most people don’t see the sacrifice it takes to reach the heights he has achieved or the emotional burden that comes with knowing his best days are behind him. Smith will probably win many more golf tournaments, many of them of tremendous importance, but it’s not going to be the same as it was in the past.
“It’s a little hard, to be honest,” Smith said. “With the Mid-Am victories and the four Masters and the three Walker Cups in a row, sometimes you have to mentally trick yourself to get up for basically any other golf event. When I was on the Walker Cup teams, I was a little younger and now I have more in common with their parents than the players.”
But like the true mid-amateur he is, Smith still loves hitting balls and values the thrill of competition. The feeling of starting his season at Seminole for the Coleman is one of enthusiasm. That’s an energy that never truly leaves.
There’s an old quote that says, “You are allowed to be a work in progress and a masterpiece at the same time.” Smith’s career is and always will be a masterpiece for the amateur record books. At the same time, the beauty of golf is that it never really ends. You can’t retire from golf. You can look back fondly, but you still have to re-create yourself every time a tee goes in the ground.
That’s what Smith has been thinking about for all the long winter nights in Pennsylvania when golf seemed so far away. He dreamt of being under a waving palm tree, battling the timeless Donald Ross layout with all his might.
“I’ve been working and dying for the sun to come out,” he said.
Nathan Smith during 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Saucon Valley Country Club. Photo: Steve Boyle, Copyright USGA
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?