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Smith Wins Mid-Am Title in Abbreviated Final

By David Shefter

| Oct 16, 2003 | Wilmington. Del.

(USGA/Steven Gibbons)

A little more than 12 hours before the scheduled 36-hole championship match of the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur, Nathan Smith was supposed to be back in western Pennsylvania taking an accounting exam. The 25-year-old Brookville, Pa. resident is taking classes at Clarion University in an attempt to get an MBA (Masters in Business Administration).

But with Smith in the final, he would have to concede this particular test. Little did he know a concession would play a much bigger role on Thursday at Wilmington Country Club's South Course.

Bryan Norton, 44, of Mission Hills, Kan., injured his left calf while playing a 9-iron shot off a severe uphill lie above a fairway bunker at the ninth hole. After receiving medical treatment for about 15 minutes and playing two more shots, Norton conceded the match to Smith.

The victory made Smith the youngest winner in Mid-Amateur history, surpassing Greg Puga, who was 29 when he captured the 2000 title. Only two players under the age of 30 have won this event, open to golfers 25 years of age and older, since its inception in 1981. Smith turned 25 on Aug. 6 and was the youngest competitor in the 264-player field.

It's the first time in the 108-year history of USGA championships that a final match had been conceded due to injury or illness.

"That's a real shame," said Smith, who played collegiately at Division III Allegheny (Pa.) College. "He's such a nice guy and a great player. I was caught off guard.

"But I played well all week, so by no means is this an empty feeling."

Smith was the equivalent of three under par through eight holes and had hit eight of nine greens in regulation when the match was halted. Meanwhile, Norton, who played on the European Tour for five years and the PGA Tour for one before regaining his amateur status in 1998, was struggling with his game, hitting only four of nine greens and two of seven fairways.

"When I came back down, all my weight hit my left leg and it kind of twisted underneath me and my calf muscle popped," said Norton, explaining the injury. "It was not horribly painful. I'm not in pain. I just can't walk. I just could not put any weight on my left calf."

Neither player could sleep much on Wednesday night. Norton said he got up three times and was physically exhausted by the time he arrived at the course for the 8 a.m. start. Smith said he was thinking about the ultimate prize for winning the Mid-Am title - an invitation to the Masters at Augusta National that traditionally has gone to the champion.

"I felt terrible (from the start)," said Norton. "I had not hit a ball left all week and I hit three shots just dead left, including the first shot off the first tee. I don't know if I should have gotten up on an exercise bike to get my body going or something else, but looking back on it, I should have done that."

Added Smith: "My girlfriend called me and she was watching (the highlights) on The Golf Channel. And I made the mistake of thinking about what it would mean to win this (championship). Now I might feel a little tired, but the adrenaline was going this morning."

Smith, who earned a 10-year exemption to the Mid-Amateur and a two-year exemption from sectional qualifying to the U.S. Amateur, got off to a hot start, sticking his 7-iron approach shots to the first and third holes to within 4 feet for conceded birdies. He won the fifth hole with a par and holed a 24-footer at the eighth for a 4-up lead. That putt came after Norton's chip shot from the greenside rough stopped 18 inches from the flag.

At that point, Norton felt like he still could come back, especially since he had rallied to beat stroke-play medalist Tripp Davis in the second round and U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist Patrick Carter in the quarterfinals.

"I just thought, 'Keep plugging away and shoot a good score and hopefully he cools off,' " said Norton, who eliminated defending champion George Zahringer in the semifinals. "It would have been a lot worse if I felt I couldn't hit any good shots, but I had hit some really good iron shots (at holes 3, 6 and 7). But I just had no push with my legs at all with my driver."

As for Smith, he felt he was due to break through at a national amateur competition. This summer, he was disappointed to miss the match-play cut at the U.S. Amateur, which was played near his home at Oakmont Country Club. At the prestigious Porter Cup in July, Smith shot a final-round 75 - after three sub-par 70 efforts - to finish in a tie for seventh. He also tied for fourth at the Sunnehanna Amateur and placed fifth at the Monroe Invitational.

Last year, he won the Pennsylvania Amateur at Oakmont C.C. and was the runner-up at the North-South Amateur held annually at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. Three years ago, he advanced to the third round where he lost to Gary Wolstenholme of England, the reigning British Amateur champion and five-time Walker Cupper.

And in his junior year in high school, Smith won the state title for Brookville High.

But when it came to recruiting, Division I schools backed off. Smith admitted that his game lacked length at that time and he doesn't regret choosing to play at Division III Allegheny. He was able to play right away and gradually his game improved to the point where he could compete with any of the country's top-flight amateurs. He also credited his work with local pro Don Sargeant for improving his game.

"Why I wanted to win so badly today is that I've never been able to break through and win something (on the national stage)," said Smith, who was the runner-up at the NCAA Division III Men's Championship in 2001. "I've had a lot of really good finishes and I knew my game was good enough, but the breaks just weren't happening."

Now he's likely headed to some practice rounds with some of the world's best professionals at next spring's Masters. "It hasn't sunk in yet," Smith said. "I'm sure it will when the invitation comes in the mail."

Norton, on the other hand, decided to turn professional after a successful collegiate career at Oral Roberts, where the team finished no worse than sixth at the NCAAs from 1978-81. He placed fourth individual in 1980. Norton played regularly on the European Tour from 1987-90 and on the PGA Tour in 1991. He also played a few European Tour events in 1991. He played in 27 PGA Tour events in 1991, making 10 cuts with his best finish a tie for seventh in Houston . But it was about that time that he lost his thirst for the professional game, especially after the birth of his first child.

So Norton got into the insurance business and once he got his amateur status back in 1998, he rediscovered his love for the game.

"I enjoy it," said Norton, who played in four amateur competitions this year. "The camaraderie is terrific. It's very competitive and yet it's not a living. I wish I could do more, but my business keeps me too occupied."

Norton did sneak away to Scotland in early August to compete in the British Mid-Amateur on the Jubilee Course at St. Andrews, where he earned stroke-play medalist honors before losing in the second round.

"I loved playing over there," said Norton, who had not been back to Scotland since 1990. "It's just a real special place and I was dying to go back."

While Norton's injury was an unfortunate circumstance, especially in the final, he left Wilmington Country Club with some good memories. His performance earned him a three-year exemption to the Mid-Amateur and by advancing to the final, he receives an exemption to the 2004 U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot. When Norton heard about this perk, his spirits instantly were uplifted.

"I didn't know about that," he said. "That's great."