USGA Amateur Champions Ready To Tee It Up In Augusta

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U.S. Amateur runner-up Ben Martin may be the player most familiar with Augusta National, having attended the Masters as a spectator since he was 6 years old. (John Mummert/USGA)

April 7, 2010

Augusta, Ga. – Nathan Smith was relieved and yet a little disappointed that he did not draw a pairing for the 74th Masters that included the No. 1 player in the world, Tiger Woods. Sure, many players expressed doubt about their ability to handle such a pressure-packed assignment, with Woods returning from a five-month self-imposed layoff. But Smith would have relished the chance.

Besides, it’s not like he isn’t used to big crowds at Augusta National Golf Club.

The reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion can recall how special it was to play the first two rounds of his first Masters in 2004 with Arnold Palmer. A four-time Masters champion, Palmer was playing in his 50th and final Masters in ’04.

Smith, who like Palmer is a Pennsylvania native, was there every step of the way as Palmer bowed out with a pair of 84s.

“That was a pretty special moment,” said Smith, 31, who shot 78-72-150 to miss the cut but collected memories of a lifetime. “I enjoyed that so much. It would have been great [playing with Tiger]. Obviously, there is a lot more going on than even what there was with Arnold, but it still would have been fun. You can’t get a bad pairing out here.”

Smith is one of six amateurs in the field and one of four who qualified via his performance in USGA events. The others are Byeong-Hun An, who won the 109th U.S. Amateur Championship last year at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., Ben Martin, runner-up to An at Southern Hills, and Brad Benjamin, winner of the 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, Okla.

The other amateur qualifiers are Chang-won Han of Korea, who captured the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship, and Italy’s Matteo Manassero, who won the British Amateur Championship. Manassero, at age 16, is the youngest winner in the 124 years of the British Am and the youngest Masters invitee.

Smith is the veteran of the group, in age as well as tournament experience. He begins the 74th Masters at 8:45 a.m. EDT with 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara and Rory Sabbatini. The pairing doesn’t intimidate him, but the Masters layout still gives him reason for caution.

“I’m having a lot of fun and playing as well as I can. I don’t know how that will translate playing against these guys … they are so good and the course is so difficult; there is no comparison to ’04 as far as much longer and tougher,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of golf course. The goal is to just try to put some numbers up and see about playing two more rounds on the weekend.”

An, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., got a PGA Tour warm-up two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., but he knew it couldn’t possibly prepare him for the difficulty of Augusta National. Unlike Smith, he’s not thinking beyond the first round, which he’ll start at 10:24 a.m. in the traditional pairing with defending Masters champion Angel Cabrera. Jim Furyk, who won the 2003 U.S. Open, rounds out the threesome.

“It’s my first major and my first Masters, so obviously, I’m excited, but I’m trying to not get too excited so I can play my game,” An said. “My goal for this week is just to play my best. It’s not really to make the cut or anything. Then I see what I have to work on. I do have goals, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t quite reach them.”

An, 18, played a practice round Tuesday with fellow Korean natives K.J. Choi and reigning PGA champion Y.E. Yang. That in itself was an experience, given how much he looks up to them.

“Yeah, that was definitely a highlight,” said An, who enjoyed conversing in Korean with his playing partners. “But the whole week has been fun so far. It’s a fantastic course, very hard, and I’m learning a lot.”

As much as he’s learned, it’s a safe bet that Benjamin and Martin are a bit more comfortable on Augusta National, even if they, too, are Masters rookies.

Benjamin, 23, graduated from the University of Memphis, and has played Augusta National at least 15 times since he upset Canada’s Nick Taylor, 7 and 6, in the Publinks final.

“I feel like I know the course a lot, but players have told me that the course really changes from Wednesday to Thursday. I feel more comfortable every day,” said Benjamin, who tees it up Thursday with two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer and former U.S. Amateur winner Scott Verplank at 8:23 a.m.

Benjamin scored a 71 the first time he played Augusta National and he shot a 33 on the back nine Tuesday. “I feel like good golf is there. It’s just a matter of managing mistakes, and that’s the hardest part,” he said. “This golf course you can get on a run of bogeys, but you also can’t give away too much otherwise you won’t make any birdies.”

Martin, 22, a senior at Clemson University, is perhaps the most familiar with Augusta among all the amateurs. A native of Rome, Ga., he’s been going to the Masters as a spectator since he was 6 years old, so qualifying for the year’s first major is a dream come true.

“So far, it’s been even better than I could have ever imagined,” said Martin, who made a run at winning Wednesday’s Par-3 Tournament. He was four under through eight holes until splashing two in the water on the home hole.

Martin played practice rounds this week with Fuzzy Zoeller, Ian Woosnam, Zach Johnson and Ben Crenshaw, all past Masters champions. He’ll tee it up for real with Crenshaw and Steve Flesch at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The Academic All-American said he learned plenty about how to navigate the course from those men. Putting the game plan into action is the trick.

His goal, he said, is to make the cut, because he plans to turn professional after the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and four rounds at the Masters allows him to skip the first stage of the PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament in the fall.

“Zach Johnson was telling me we don’t play to make cuts, we play to win out here, but making the cut would be a really good start,” Martin said. “But whatever happens, I can already say that this has been the highlight of my golf career.”

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