Greensboro, N.C. – To some observers, Herschel Smith’s preparation leading up to the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship might appear a little unorthodox.
In the week prior to arriving at Bryan Park Golf & Conference Center on Saturday, Smith made his way to the driving range just once. He practiced his putting in a hotel room.
“Some weeks I'm able to practice every week, and then some weeks I won't be able to touch a golf club the entire week,” said Smith, 27, who shot an opening-round 5-over-par 76 on Monday and was tied for 91st in a field that will be trimmed Tuesday to the top 64 scores for the start of match play on Wednesday.
Unlike a vast number of the other 155 players in the field, Smith does not have a lot of freedom to work on his game. The reason is because he’s training to protect his freedom. And the United States of America’s freedom.
Though Smith lists Franklin, Tenn., as home, he is on orders to relocate to Del Rio, Texas, in preparation for U.S. Air Force air education and training at Laughlin Air Force Base on July 23. After nearly 18 months of training at Laughlin, at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, and at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Little Rock, Ark., Smith will be a fully qualified Air Force C-130 pilot.
Specifically, Smith will be a loadmaster, whose responsibility is to supervise the loading of C-130 cargo and passengers, and to calculate the cargo’s weight and balance to determine the plane’s center of gravity for proper air flight. The four-engine C-130’s cargo plan can be configured to carry troops, relief supplies or military vehicles. Fully loaded, the C-130 can weigh 155,000 pounds.
“I've carried everything from water and food to hay for animals to oats and guns. Ambulances,” Smith said. “We could put just about anything in the back of the airplane.”
As a seven-year member of the 165th Air Lift Squadron, a unit of the Kentucky Air National Guard, Smith has logged 1,000 flying hours, roughly 100 of which have been in combat. He has been deployed to Afghanistan twice.
“Growing up I actually wanted to go to the Navy,” said Smith, a fourth-generation Herschel. His father played golf at the Naval Academy, became a Navy pilot and later an instructor pilot at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. “My eyes really weren’t that great, so when I was looking into going to the service academies and to be a pilot, you still needed 20/20 vision. Just in the last five years they now allow for vision correction, which I have. So I'm able to fly now.”
When the service academy route did not pan out, Smith accepted a golf scholarship to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After a RedHawks coaching change, Smith’s collegiate career eroded. He did, though, meet his future wife, Melissa, who lived in the same dormitory and was in a freshman calculus class with Smith.
Throughout his college years, Smith’s desire to fly never diminished.
“It's amazing to me,” said Smith, whose nickname is Kip, a name his father heard while refereeing a soccer match and decided the moniker fit his son. “It's beautiful once you get up in the air. It just blows my mind every time I do it, and I love getting out there with four or five of my best friends and just flying all over the country and getting to see the world. It's just … it blows my mind every time.”
Smith’s ground-to-air career path began while in Oxford, when he joined the Kentucky Air National Guard. He balanced serving with school, a civilian job and getting married. Two years ago, Smith was selected for the two-year Air Force pilot training process and has gone full-time military in the past year.
Along the way, Smith’s passion for golf, which he started playing at age 14, may have been put off to the side, but never went away. This week is Smith’s first competitive golf event in nearly three years, and his first USGA championship.
“I've just had a little bit more time in the last six months to play and practice,” he said. “I've just been going to schools here and there and then getting a two‑ or three‑week break where I'd be able to go practice and play. I figured I'd give it a shot. Here I am.”
As a junior golfer, Smith was a consistent low-handicap player and routinely attempted, but failed, to qualify for USGA championships. Through the years he has maintained or developed friendships with accomplished career amateurs and aspiring professionals. That experience has kept his game sharp.
“It's not like I’m shell‑shocked to be able to get out here and play with some of these really good college players,” he said. “They're gonna be great, but at least I've been able to play with guys back home who are terrific players.”
Smith’s realistic expectations are to advance out of stroke play and play respectably in match play. Regardless of when his run ends, Smith will then head back to Del Rio, where he was to be on July 9 to begin admission and medical processing.
When he qualified for the APL, Smith realized a conflict. His Kentucky squadron leaders eagerly signed off on his playing and suggested calling his superiors at Laughlin to receive their permission, which was granted.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize pilot training,” he said, “just because the opportunities given to me to go fly, for me personally, outweigh the opportunities to go play golf out here.”
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.