For Nathan Smith, A Championship Season To Savor
On Oct. 9, Nathan Smith, 31, of Pittsburgh, Pa., claimed his second U.S. Mid-Amateur title with a 7-and-6 triumph over 33-year-old Tim Spitz of Rochester, N.Y. The victory made Smith, a financial advisor, the fifth multiple winner of the USGA national championship for golfers 25 and over. It also completed a dream-like summer for the 2003 Mid-Am champ, one that also included playing on the victorious USA Walker Cup Team and helping Pennsylvania capture its first USGA Men’s State Team Championship. Following Smith’s victory at The Kiawah Island (S.C.) Club’s Cassique layout, USGA Digital Media staff writer David Shefter chatted with him about his championship season -- and the look ahead to his likely invite to the 2010 Masters.
USGA: You’ve had a remarkable summer in terms of wins and playing on the big stage. Can you summarize what you’ve been through?
Winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur title capped off a remarkable 2009 season for Nathan Smith. (John Mummert/USGA)
Smith: It’s a real honor. It’s a dream. I don’t know what else to say. I was part of two great teams with a lot of special players on them. So I kind of look at it that way. It’s just an unbelievable way to end the year.
Does the U.S. Mid-Amateur win this year validate what you achieved in 2003 when your opponent, Bryan Norton, had to withdraw after nine holes due to injury?
Smith: Yeah, I’ve got to be honest, it does. Bryan is a great player. It was really unfortunate. But at the same time you wish you could play it out. This [title] definitely means a lot.
How much did all those competitive events this summer help in your run to the Mid-Amateur title?
Smith: It helped a lot. I think it really helped me in the Walker Cup with the inter-squad [matches]. Just being around those younger guys and watching how they do things and how they play. I think the other thing is, I’m 31. You don’t have a lot of baggage, if that makes any sense. You play in these [national championships], and sometimes you can easily get a negative attitude. Being around those younger guys [at the Walker Cup and amateur events] is almost like you’re rejuvenated. There’s a confidence.
Now that the competitive golf year is over, you face the prospect of returning to your daytime job. What will that be like?
Smith: I think I am going to need MapQuest to find the office. My phone probably has blown up. There’s a lot of work. It’s been tough, but everybody has been great. My wife and everybody.
How many Masters tickets will have to be doled out to your colleagues?
Smith: Probably quite a few.
Getting back to your golf game, you have such a calm demeanor on the course. Where did that cool exterior come from?
Smith: I don’t know. I think that’s just my personality. In a lot of these events you never want to tip your hand. You don’t want to have the person you’re playing kind of see anything; that you are upset or rattled. You just have to go play and have a good attitude.
You wore the same pink golf shirt for several consecutive days, you parked in the same spot each day and you ate the same meal at a local restaurant each evening, which begs the question, are you a little superstitious?
Smith: I really am not. But when you get to these formats, you become that [repetitive]. You can’t help but become that. I did the same thing in 2003. The last couple rounds of match play, I pretty much wore the same outfit. I wore this pink shirt during stroke play [at Cassique] and I played well (shot 68) and then I kind of got back to it the last couple days. I washed the shirt and everything, so it was all good there. Then we went back to King Street to eat every night, so I think I’m not going to eat steak for awhile.
Did you also eat the same thing for breakfast?
Smith: Yeah, you know, but yeah [laughing].
What do you remember most about your 2004 Masters experience, and how will 2010 be different?
Smith: That was a dream. I remember playing the Par-3 [Contest] with Phil [Mickelson]. You know, he ended up winning that year, which was his first [major]. Our tee times were pretty similar and I had lunch with him a couple times. That’s just off the chart. Then the guy goes out and wins his first major, and you’re kind of there every step of the way. So I don’t know if it could get any more special than that.
Having his father, Larry (left), on the bag for most of the summer made this 2009 golf season even more special for Nathan Smith. (John Mummert/USGA)
Will you seek out Phil Mickelson again this year for the Par-3 Contest?
Smith: I would be okay with that [laughing].
You also had the chance to play two competition rounds with fellow western Pennsylvanian and golf icon Arnold Palmer, who was playing competitively for the final time at Augusta. Can you describe that experience?
Smith: He’s the best. He’s the king. You know, being from western Pennsylvania, he’s one of our heroes. I’ve talked to him throughout the years. When I injured my shoulder, I got a phone call from him. He’s been great to me.
No reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion since 1989, when Augusta National began inviting the winner, has ever made the cut at the Masters. You missed by two shots in 2004 with a double bogey at the 18th hole. Now that you have an understanding for the course and atmosphere, do you think you can break through?
Smith: I’ve got a lot of time to think about that. It’s hard for me. I’m just coming off these matches [at the Mid-Amateur]. Sure, when the time rolls around, I want to try to be competitive somehow down there. I mean, that’s the fun of it. At times, it feels a little ceremonial. But I want to try to be competitive with those guys. I’ll try to figure out a way.
So far you have remained a lifelong amateur, like 2007 winner Trip Kuehne. Was there ever a time you thought about turning professional?
Smith: I think in ’03 I was just starting to play a lot. There were a lot of timely things happening. I was going to grad school and my game just kind of kept progressing. It wasn’t like I was going to walk out of college and turn pro.
You attended Allegheny College, a small school in western Pennsylvania. Did you have offers from bigger golf powers or were you intent on playing in relative anonymity at a Division III school?
Smith: I won the Pennsylvania [high school] championship as a sophomore. I had a couple of top finishes my junior and senior year. I had some different offers from D1 schools. Allegheny was just a great fit for me. It was one of those [programs] I could go in and I could play without going up the ladder.
Does having a summer like you achieved make you think about ever playing for pay?
Smith: I’m never gonna say never like [NFL quarterback] Brett Favre [laughing]. You know, [amateur golf] is just a perfect fit for me. Like anybody, you have days where you’re out there and playing great and you start to think. Then you have other days where you’re pretty comfortable.
It sounds like you have the perfect balance of golf, family and work.
Smith: I think so. I think it’s pretty good.
How special was it having your dad serving as your caddie this summer?
Smith: He’s cheap. No, it’s been great. It’s one of those things that has really worked out.
Having competed on a victorious Walker Cup and USGA Men’s State Team, winning two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and playing in two Masters, is there anything missing from the golf portfolio?
Smith: The U.S. Open. That’s definitely it. I’ll have a great shot at it with the Walker Cup exemption [out of local qualifying]. That’s definitely something [I want to achieve].