Lake Forest, Ill. – There was an extra bit of emotion from Nathan Smith as he exited the 18th green at Conway Farms Golf Club Thursday afternoon.
Moments before being interviewed by Golf Channel’s Steve Burkowski, the 34-year-old from Pittsburgh was overcome. Normally a calm and stoic individual – both in victory and defeat – Smith simply couldn’t hold anything back.
Not after making Mid-Amateur championship history.
By outlasting 25-year-old Garrett Rank, of Canada, 1 up, in the 36-hole championship match, Smith became the first golfer to claim four titles in this USGA competition for golfers 25 and over.
His match-play record in eight Mid-Amateurs is now an unfathomable 32-4, and he has hoisted the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Trophy in 50 percent of his appearances.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Smith, who surpassed fellow Pennsylvanian Jay Sigel in total Mid-Amateur victories and became the 15th golfer to win the same USGA championship four or more times. “I played some great opponents this week. Honestly the [six matches] … I just kind of gutted it out and somehow was able to come out on top. They were all so tough. I don’t know how I did it.”
Smith’s remarkable achievements – which also include a 2009 USGA Men’s State Team title and Walker Cup appearances in 2009 and 2011 – place him among the greatest golfers from the Keystone State.
Arnold Palmer, with 1960 U.S. Open, 1954 U.S. Amateur and 1981 U.S. Senior Open triumphs to go along with six other major titles (four Masters and two British Opens) is at the top of the Pennsylvania class.
But Smith is starting to sneak up on a few of the other greats, such as Carol Semple Thompson and Sigel. Thompson owns seven USGA titles and played on a record 12 USA Curtis Cup Teams to earn a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Sigel, who has two U.S. Amateur victories to go with three Mid-Am titles and nine Walker Cup appearances, is regarded as one of the greatest amateur golfers of all-time.
In the 1920s, Pittsburgh native Carl Kauffmann won three consecutive U.S. Amateur Public Links titles, a feat that has never been duplicated in that championship. Philadelphia natives O. Gordon Brewer and William Hyndman III each produced two USGA Senior Amateur titles, and S. Davidson Herron won the 1919 U.S. Amateur over Jones at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, his home course. Sam Parks, another western Pennsylvania native from Bellevue, used his local knowledge of Oakmont C.C. to win the 1935 U.S. Open.
And now Smith has certainly joined the conversation. At 25, he won his first U.S. Mid-Amateur. He missed the 2004 and 2005 championships due to a shoulder injury and his wedding, respectively, but he has played in the last seven, producing three victories and a semifinal performance (2011), all while having a huge target on his back.
“Well, I know I have the best caddie that’s ever caddied in Pennsylvania,” said Smith of his 64-year-old father, Larry, who has carried the bag for all four of his Mid-Am titles. “You’re talking about some great players. I’m just honored to be playing in this [event].”
Smith understands that the Mid-Amateur is the championship that has defined his golf career and continues to do so. Winning this event has helped him earn spots on two Walker Cup Teams. It has also helped him land invitations to other prestigious competitions such as the Western Amateur, Porter Cup and Northeast Amateur.
Now the Mid-Amateur has turned him into a legendary figure, at least among the 25-and-older crowd.
“You kind of hear about it every day,” he said. “It was tough last year making it to the semifinals and losing. It’s tough [because] everybody is kind of gunning for you, so you can’t hide from it. Somebody is always asking me when the Mid-Am is and did you win and all that.
“You can’t help [being] tied to this championship. You can’t just show up and play.”
Smith wasn’t exactly afforded an easy draw this year, either. He started by playing the oldest competitor in the field, 61-year-old Paul Simson (2 and 1), and ended it by playing the youngest in Rank, who turned 25 three days before the first round of stroke-play qualifying last Saturday. In between, Smith knocked off his closest friend and the best man at his 2005 wedding, Sean Knapp (19 holes), in the third round, professional PGA Tour caddie Corby Segal (1 up) in the quarterfinals and two-time Mid-Amateur champion Tim Jackson (3 and 1) in the semifinals.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wilson, Russ Mackay and Eric Chute began to formulate a plan. And when good friend Garrett Rank beat Todd White, 1 up, to get into Thursday’s Mid-Amateur final, they made a dash for suburban Chicago.
Wilson drove two hours from his home near Niagara Falls, Ontario, to London, where he met up with Mackay and Chute, who had driven an hour from Waterloo/Guelph. Mackay and Wilson played on the University of Waterloo golf team with Rank, and all three graduated this past spring. Chute, now a golf shop manager and assistant pro at Grey Silo Golf Course in Waterloo, had befriended Rank several years ago when the two were officiating hockey games.
Chute and Rank are still referees, the latter in the Ontario Hockey League and the former in lower-level junior leagues.
By 8 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, all three had arrived in a Wendy’s parking lot, where Wilson left his vehicle and joined the other two in Chute’s car.
“Hopefully his car is still there,” said Mackay.
Chute, a 24-year-old Waterloo resident who has caddied for Rank on many occasions, including the 2011 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links and this year’s U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, had wanted to come to Conway Farms for Wednesday’s quarterfinals and semis, but couldn’t get the time off from his job. So Rank carried his own bag during his quarterfinals and Matt Cohn, a fellow competitor, caddied for him in his semifinal win.
Chute, who drove the first 4½ hours of the 7½-hour journey, wasn’t going to miss the final. Knowing that Chute was going to carry Rank’s bag on Thursday, Mackay and Wilson shared driving duties for the remainder of the trip.
“I had a big can of Red Bull for the last leg of the trip,” said Mackay, who was clad in Loud Mouth pants with a Canadian flag draped over his back.
The trio arrived in the Conway Farms parking lot at 2:30 a.m. CDT. They got a few hours of sleep before the scheduled 7 a.m. start.
Going on adrenaline, Chute showed no signs of fatigue over the 36 holes. He also was well-versed in Rank’s game, which featured several 300-yard drives.
“I was telling him all the way around that he was good enough to beat him,” said Chute. “[Garrett] has come a long way in the last three years. He’s hitting it straighter than he’s ever hit it. [And] those 5- and 6-footers, he makes them all the time.”
Despite Rank’s defeat, Chute, Mackay and Wilson all said the last-minute trip was worth it.
Rank certainly appreciated the support.
“I wouldn’t say it was a pro-Nathan crowd, but just to have your buddies here watching, and cheering for you and picking you up when you hit a good shot … was definitely a huge help,” said Rank. “It brought a smile to my face.”
Odds And Ends
Smith only made three birdies over the 36 holes and none won any holes. He made a two-putt 4 to halve the par-5 14th hole in the morning round. At the par-4 25th hole, he rolled in a clutch 20-footer for a 4 after Rank had driven the green. Rank two-putted for birdie to get the halve. At the par-5 26th hole, Rank rolled in a 12-foot birdie before Smith drained his birdie attempt from 10 feet...Smith shot the equivalent of 5-over 76 in the morning 18 and added an even-par 71 in the afternoon, with the usual match-play concessions...Rank shot 77-71...Both Rank and Chute were scheduled to referee hockey games on Friday night. Rank, who hasn’t skated this year, was to work a Kitchener Rangers/Barrie Colts preseason contest at the Kitchener Auditorium. “The puck drops at 7:30 [p.m.],” said Rank. “I might as well get one in before the real season begins.” … Smith was to fly back to Pittsburgh before making the drive on Sunday to southern New Jersey for the USGA Men’s State Team Championship, scheduled Sept. 19-21 at Galloway National Golf Club in Galloway Township … By making it to the final, Rank is exempt into the 2013 U.S. Amateur, 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links and the next three U.S. Mid-Amateurs. He also receives an exemption from local qualifying for next year’s U.S. Open. “The U.S. Am is always a tough event to get into, so an exemption to that is huge. And [the U.S. Open local exemption] is even better.”… Smith plans to have his father back on the bag for the Masters next spring. Since 1989, every Mid-Amateur champion has received an invitation to play in the tournament. “He won’t miss it,” said Nathan. “He’ll get that big white jumper.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org