USGA MEN'S STATE TEAM
Palmer Memories Flow at State Team September 28, 2016 | Birmingham, Ala. By David Shefter, USGA

Four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith developed a special bond with Arnold Palmer over the past 15 years. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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As he walked down the 18th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club during the second round of the Masters in 2004, Nathan Smith’s mind was spinning. There he was in the midst of history, while trying to make some of his own.

Walking with the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion was one of the game’s icons playing his final holes on these hallowed grounds as a competitor.

“It was so hard to think out there, let alone talk,” said Smith of his first Masters, where he was paired with Arnold Palmer, who was playing his 50th and final Masters. “Coming up 18, I needed a par to make the cut and I made a double bogey. At the time, it was a blur. I didn’t know what the cut was going to be. I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like there were 50,000 people on that hole.”

When they holed out, Palmer approached his fellow Western Pennsylvanian and extended his hand.

“’I’m sorry this happened to you,’” said Smith, recounting Palmer’s consolatory words. “’You played great. That has happened to me before.’ I didn’t know what that meant [at the time], but I guess back in the day, he made double there to lose the [1961] tournament (Palmer lost by a stroke to Gary Player). Years later, I realized what that meant.”

Smith, who is representing Pennsylvania in the 12th USGA Men’s State Team Championship this week at the Country Club of Birmingham, like many competitors is donning an Arnie’s Army pin. Smith fondly recalled several Palmer memories a few days after the seven-time major champion passed away Sunday at the age of 87. While the world mourns the death of arguably golf’s greatest ambassador, it also has been a time for those in the game to celebrate what Palmer meant, not only to sports, but humanity.

Smith, 38, of Pittsburgh, first met “The King” during the annual Palmer Cup matches at Latrobe Country Club, which pits the area’s leading amateurs against club professionals. The friendship grew when Smith won the first of his four U.S. Mid-Amateur titles in 2003, earning him an invitation to the Masters, where he played a Tuesday practice round with Palmer, unaware that they would play together during the opening two rounds.

When Smith required shoulder surgery later that year, Palmer called him and told Smith to “hang in there, you are playing great.”

Like Smith, Palmer was from a small town in Western Pennsylvania (Latrobe) who never forgot his roots, despite his worldly stature. Smith grew up in Brookville, 81 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

“What blew me away with him is he could live anywhere in the world and yet he still went back to Latrobe,” said Smith. “In Pittsburgh, you don’t realize what an icon [he was], living there in Latrobe. People took it for granted because he was so accessible.

“The one thing I got from him is just how well he treated people, how present he was in conversations. He was just so good to me, not only down at Augusta giving me advice, but at the Palmer Cup.”

In the fall of 2013, Smith was a few weeks removed from his third Walker Cup Match, when Palmer casually mentioned to him about playing in his PGA Tour event at Bay Hill in Florida. At the time, Smith thought it was a joke until an invitation arrived in his mailbox.

“I’m sure there have been better players,” said Smith, “but there’s nobody who will be more loved or more important than him.”

Chip Lutz (right) played with Arnold Palmer for the first time 14 years ago at Latrobe C.C., and his son, Jordan (left), also met him that day. (Chip Lutz) 

Chip Lutz’s association with Palmer goes back 15 years to his first USGA Men’s State Team start, when his Pennsylvania side included Michael McDermott and Latrobe’s Jim Bryan, who happened to be Palmer’s dentist and a lifelong friend of the family. Lutz’s father, Buddy, had competed against Palmer in the late 1940s, losing to him in the semifinals of the 1948 Sunnehanna Invitational, the predecessor to the Sunnehanna Amateur.

But Chip didn’t meet Palmer until after the Men’s State Team at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., when Bryan invited the group to play at Latrobe Country Club.

“Jim was like a son to Arnold,” said Lutz, 61, of Reading, Pa., who is playing in his first State Team in 15 years. “Jim grew up with Arnold’s daughter, and Arnie got him started playing golf. Arnold took Jim under his wing.”

Since then, Lutz, the low amateur in this year’s U.S. Senior Open, had a couple of other chances to play with Palmer, and after he won the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur, Bryan texted Lutz because “AP wanted his home address.” Not long after, a hand-written note from Palmer arrived, congratulating him on his Senior Amateur triumph.

“Just a real class guy,” said Lutz. “He’ll definitely be missed, but he’ll also be celebrated for many, many years to come.”

Before the 2015 USA Walker Cup Team departed for England, Spider Miller, the captain and a longtime friend of Palmer’s, arranged for the 10-man squad to visit Latrobe and meet with him. It was a day none of the players will forget. They were invited into his office for a chat and they had a chance to peruse his remarkable collection of memorabilia and clubs.

“We were all picking his brain,” said Mike McCoy, 53, who is representing Iowa in the State Team. “He was telling us stories about him growing up there and his business dealings and flying airplanes. I was one of the older guys and he pulled me aside and asked me, ‘Are you ready to get it on with these young guys?’ He was very encouraging to me. You knew you were in a room with a dignified man. It certainly is one of the great memories of my life.”

McCoy, who won the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur at the Country Club of Birmingham, first encountered Palmer in his hometown of Des Moines when he played some exhibitions there. He also attended the 1999 U.S. Senior Open at Des Moines Golf & Country Club, where Palmer was plastered on the front page of the Des Moines Register just for landing his plane at the airport. He also had a chance to visit with Palmer at the 2014 Masters. Having competed many times against his grandson, Sam Saunders, the two had developed a mutual kinship.

“He always did things the right way,” said McCoy. “He just didn’t turn it over to somebody. He’d write the letter. He’d sign the letter. He was pretty involved with his business dealings, too. You could see that sitting in his office. It’s amazing what he’s meant to everybody, whether you were an amateur or a pro.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

 

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