Pittsburgh – Say the name Bob Jones and the immediate thoughts are “excellence” and “quintessential amateur golfer.”
And since Jones retired at age 28 in 1930, the mantle of accomplishment he established has never been matched. Among the reasons is that young amateurs are far more likely to succumb to the lure of professional golf’s millions than maintain their amateur status and play for the love of the game.
Nathan Smith is one who has resisted the siren call of professional golf and finds himself on the verge of taking a very special place in the history of amateur golf.
The Brookville, Pa., native has been preparing from the first of the year for a trip to Augusta, Ga., for his third appearance in the Masters. His summer schedule will likely involve a tour of the elite amateur events, building toward a possible spot on the USA Walker Cup Team.
But Smith also has an opportunity to do what no other person has done: win the U.S. Mid-Amateur for the third straight time. And if he is able to do that, he will also surpass Jay Sigel as the all-time leader in Mid-Am victories with four. Not bad for a 32-year-old who juggles his golf with a successful career in the investment business.
“First of all, it’s something I enjoy doing,” said Smith, explaining his passions for work and golf. “I love to run to the golf course before or after work, I can’t get enough of it. I don’t feel like it’s a job. Golf is almost like an obsessed hobby that I really can’t get enough of.”
Living in the mostly golfer-unfriendly Pittsburgh winters could be a detriment for a player trying to sharpen his game for early spring events like the Masters, but Smith has found a way to make it work. He belongs to a pair of clubs – Wildwood Golf Club and Sewickley Heights Golf Club – and when possible he will hit balls at one of the courses.
But when it’s not, he’ll go to a small practice range in the area, Pine Creek, and beat balls off a rubber mat into the snow.
“I enjoy hitting balls whenever I can, working out whenever I can,” said Smith. “Those are things I enjoy doing, things that make me feel alive. So it’s not like I ever really stop. I never put them (his clubs) away.
“As spring draws near, you get the time change, snow gets off the ground, things get ramped up. Usually I have more time in April and May, but the last couple years have been a little different because you have to have it ready to go April 1.”
Perhaps the most astonishing thing in Smith’s preparations is this: He actually plays very few 18-hole rounds. Time constraints limit rounds to a few holes here and there, so when he does play 18, it’s usually in a competitive situation.
He also benefits from his parents spending part of the winter in Myrtle Beach, S.C., allowing him to take an occasional weekend in warmer climes to seriously sharpen his considerable skills. It’s all part of a puzzle that must be put together for a working professional to be competitive at the highest level of amateur golf.
“I think anytime you see someone doing well at the mid-am (25 years and older) level, everything at home and behind the scenes has to be pretty solid,” Smith said. “I work with some great guys, clubs that I practice at have been great. It’s really a good situation.”
For the past 2½ years, Smith has been an integral part of Executive Wealth Counselors in Pittsburgh. And while his arrangement with that firm is somewhat unique, it’s certainly not one that has given him an unrestricted free ride.
“Because of Nathan’s personality, his thoughtfulness, his acerbic humor, he is what we refer to as a relationship manager and that’s something you can’t put a dollar figure on,” said Fred Gustave, a partner at Executive Wealth Counselors and one of Smith’s good friends. “Bottom line is he’s a great golfer, but he’s even a better person.”
Winters allow Smith to spend more time in the office, but once spring and summer arrive, Gustave readily admits that not seeing him coming through the corporate doors is much better for all concerned.
“The way we’re structured, he’s not being better served by being here,” Gustave said. “He’s better getting the exposure that he does, meeting people and getting in front of potential clients that he might not otherwise. He’s a great representative and ambassador for the firm. A lot of his contemporaries are envious, but I tell them that when they’ve played in the Masters twice, won [three] Mid-Ams and have guys lined up wanting to play with them like Nathan does, then they can be envious.”
Other very good amateurs have walked the road Smith, ranked 183rd in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, is on now and have had varying degrees of success.
“It’s a very hard thing to juggle,” said Trip Kuehne, a highly-decorated amateur who retired from competitive golf in 2008 after winning the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur. “You have to figure out what makes you play best. Obviously, Nathan has figured that out.
“I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine Nathan winning the Mid-Am again. He’s the best mid-am player and I fully expect him to win anytime he plays. I’m shocked when he doesn’t. He’s head and shoulders above everybody else. He was the only mid-am on the Walker Cup in 2009 and most likely will be in 2011. He’s the finest [mid]-amateur golfer in the world.”
Added Sigel, another decorated Pennsylvania amateur who later turned pro and competed on the Champions Tour: “It’s difficult. You have to have clearly defined goals. You establish a process and stick to it. When you practice, it has to be quality practice. When you work, it has to be quality work. Add children to the mix [and] it gets even more interesting. But for a guy to win any tournament three years in a row is pretty cool… and difficult.”
Smith’s dad, Larry, who has been his caddie nearly every step of the way on this successful journey, said that while his son has surrounded himself with a great support team, a lot of the credit goes to the guy swinging the clubs.
“He has a great understanding of what he has to do to prepare his golf,” said Larry. “He practices well in the time that’s allotted to him. Work-wise, they are very supportive of him and because of that, he’s able to be him. He just loves the game and we’re very proud of him.”
Smith’s best friend, Sean Knapp, has battled with him over the years during his own very good amateur career. At last year’s Mid-Amateur, Knapp came within one victory of facing Smith in the 36-hole championship match.
“He is stepping on the doorstep of greatness with what he has done and is likely to do in the future,” said Knapp. “It’s almost unprecedented. He’s a great player and a great guy. He stands for what amateurism is or should be. He’s getting into the status of John Harris and Jay Sigel. He needs to be considered for any national or international team.”
The humble gentleman golfer shakes his head in wonderment and raises his hands, palms up, when asked to contemplate what might be this summer.
The 2011 Walker Cup Match will be played Sept. 10-11 at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland. Smith already has participated in an informal practice session and likely is on the USGA selectors’ radar.
At this week’s Masters, he is vying to become the first reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion to make the cut, something he nearly did in 2004 when he played the first two rounds with western Pennsylvania legend Arnold Palmer. He also will try to qualify for his first U.S. Open in early June. Then there are the major amateur competitions such as the Sunnehanna Amateur, Northeast Amateur, Western Amateur and finally, the U.S. Amateur.
By then, the 10-man USA Walker Cup Team will be finalized.
“That’s another league,” said Smith of the possibility of playing in another Walker Cup. “I can’t fathom it, really. My game’s gotten better, but playing in USGA events kind of lights me up. I remember saying at the end of 2009 that I dotted all the Is, crossed all the Ts and played perfect golf that summer and that might never happen again. But here I am again and I’m ready to go for it.”
Mike Dudurich is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.