Nathan Smith has become the Roger Federer of the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
No golfer has shown more consistency in this event than Smith, who earned his third championship-match appearance in the last four years on Wednesday afternoon with a 3-and-1 win over two-time champion Tim Jackson, of Germantown, Tenn. Smith will face Garrett Rank, of Canada, a 1-up winner over Todd White, in Thursday’s 36-hole final.
Since playing his first Mid-Amateur as a 25-year-old in 2003 – he won that event at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club – the 34-year-old from Pittsburgh has a match-play record of 31-4.
Federer, for the record, once advanced to 23 consecutive Grand Slam tennis semifinals and 18 of 19 finals, from Wimbledon in 2005 to the 2010 Australian Open.
Smith’s dominance of the 25-and-over set is nearly as remarkable, if not unbelievable, especially since match play can be extremely fickle.
Smith’s .886 winning percentage is one of the championship’s best since its inception in 1981. And he didn’t play in 2004 or 2005 due to a shoulder injury.
"I don’t know [the reason]," said Smith. "I haven’t figured it out. I think being from [Pennsylvania], it’s always been at a nice time of year. You always get off to a slow start [in the spring] and in the summer you kind of find your groove. And by the end of the summer, early fall you are tournament-ready. It seems to be a nice fit through the years."
Jackson’s record in 19 Mid-Amateur appearances is nearly as impressive. But at 33-14, his winning percentage pales in comparison to Smith.
"Nathan is probably the best mid-am golfer going these days," said Jackson.
The match featured two of the most experienced USGA players in this championship. Between them, they have competed in more than 70 USGA championships, own a combined five USGA individual titles, two State Team Championships and were members of four USA Walker Cup Teams.
Yet it was the first time the two stalwarts ever faced each other in competition.
"I hope it’s the last," said Smith, who is friendly with Jackson and respects his game and reputation.
Smith will be looking to stand alone as a four-time Mid-Am champ.
"That would be unbelievable," said Smith. "Obviously I am a long way from that. I’m going to have my hands full [against Rank]. I am going to have to play great just to stay with him.
"I’m honored now to have three, with the company I am in [with Jay Sigel]. It’s a fun event and I have enjoyed playing it through the years. But anytime you can say something that nobody else did, that would be great. This championship means a lot to me because I care so much about amateur golf."
Jackson had nearly a two-hour break between his defeat of Dennis Bull in the morning quarterfinals and the start of his match against Smith.
Jackson said he actually dozed off for a few minutes in the clubhouse.
"I probably ate too much food for lunch," said Jackson. "I was a little sluggish. By the time I got to the third hole, I was fine. But I started out a little light-headed. Not to make an excuse, that’s the nature of the game. [When] you play two 18-hole matches [the same day], it’s just not going to be the same."
Matt Mattare knew the stakes. He wanted one more victory at the U.S. Mid-Amateur to ensure a spot in the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Why would a 26-year-old worry about 2014 more than next year?
Mattare’s father, Gene, is the longtime director of golf at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., and the club will host the Mid-Amateur in two years. Gene was at Conway Farms this week as part of a future sites visit.
Matt grew up at the 54-hole facility and often plays 36 a day on weekends, the only time he can get away from his job as an operations analyst for Morgan Stanley in New York City. Matt used two weeks of vacation to prepare for his first USGA championship and the 2012 Metropolitan Amateur Golf Association Amateur runner-up nearly achieved his goal.
He advanced to the quarterfinals on Tuesday with a 2-and-1 win over Stephen Cox. But in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, he fell to long-hitting Garrett Rank, 3 and 2.
"[Getting to the semifinals] was definitely on my mind," said a dejected Mattare, who by reaching the quarterfinals earned an exemption into the 2013 Mid-Amateur at the Country Club of Birmingham in Alabama. Had he made the semis, he would have been exempt through 2014 and a guaranteed home game.
"There will be a time when I can reflect [on the week] and be proud of it. Now is not that time."
Working from 7:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day doesn’t give Mattare much time to fine-tune his game. Occasionally he goes to Soho where there’s an indoor golf simulator, but it’s not the same as being on the course in the heat of competition.
It’s been that way since Mattare, a University of Notre Dame graduate, moved from Washington, D.C., last July. During his 2½ years as an account executive in D.C., Mattare could sneak away in the evening for nine holes.
His current workload allowed him to play in just the Met Amateur, Philadelphia Open and Mid-Amateur qualifier. Mattare said his game came together in late July after he struggled in a tournament two months earlier.
"He had a great run this summer," said Gene, who occasionally analyzes his son’s swing. We’re really proud of him. He was out there grinding pretty hard."
Another quarterfinal run at the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur would get Matt into the 2014 championship at Saucon Valley. So would doing well in more amateur competitions, which would raise his World Amateur Golf Ranking. Currently, the top 400 in the WAGR receive exemptions into the Mid-Am.
"It all depends on my job," said Mattare of playing more events. "It’s tough to think that far ahead right now. I certainly would like to play more. I am certainly capable of doing some great things.
"It’s good to wrap up the season like this and hopefully it’s a springboard [into 2013]."
Odds and Ends
Either way, history is going to be made in the championship match. Nathan Smith is shooting for a record fourth Mid-Amateur title, while Garrett Rank is looking to surpass Smith as the youngest champion. Smith was 25 years, 2 months old in 2003. Rank would be 25 years, 8 days old… The quarterfinals saw the end for the two professional caddies who made match play. Corby Segal, who has carried for PGA Tour player Briny Baird the past six years, lost to Smith, 1 down. Casey Boyns, who has looped at Pebble Beach the past 30 years, was ousted by Todd White, 2 and 1… Jackson will conclude his competitive season at next week’s USGA Men’s State Team Championship when he competes for Tennessee with Todd Burgan and Craig Smith… Jackson, who is exempt into the next two U.S. Mid-Amateurs, is excited about playing the Country Club of Birmingham next fall. He has won the Birmingham Invitational several times over the last 10 years and his son, Austin, will be attending Samford University in Birmingham. "I love the golf course and I think it will be a good course for me," said Jackson… Players from four decades were presented in the semifinals with Rank (25), Smith (34), Todd White (44) and Jackson (53)… Asked what was more tiring, playing nearly 36 holes of match play in one day or spending 60 minutes on the ice refereeing a hockey game, Rank said, "Definitely this [playing golf]. My feet are really tired. [In a hockey game], you can coast for a little bit." Rank is a referee in the Ontario Hockey League, the top junior league in Canada… Rank carried his own bag in the morning quarterfinals but had Matt Cohn on his bag for the semifinal. Rank beat Cohn in the Round of 16 on Tuesday, 5 and 3. Rank said he is on the fence’ about using a caddie for the final… Smith’s 64-year-old father, Larry, is carrying the bag for Nathan, as he did in 2009, 2010 and 2011. A retired fifth-grade school teacher, Larry often caddies for his son at USGA events… Smith has good memories of Conway Farms. He made match play at the 2009 Western Amateur held at the course… Three of the four semifinalists will be competing in next week’s State Team Championship. White will be representing South Carolina, Jackson is playing for Tennessee and Smith for Pennsylvania… Smith said he received a text at 4:14 a.m. today from good friend Sean Knapp, whom he eliminated in 19 holes on Wednesday afternoon. "I guess he drove back last night," said Smith. "We’re going to drive together to the State Team [in New Jersey]. I hope he doesn’t leave me off somewhere in a rest stop."
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.