Fourth trip to Masters still special for Western Pa.'s Nathan Smith

Smith can't find words to describe his elation with each visit to Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- In its purest and most original form, the Masters was founded by an amateur golfer, Bobby Jones, and embraced by the principle that amateur players embody the spirit of the game with boundless passion and unmitigated joy, tempted not by the spoils of money or fame but rather the mastery of the sport.

Since the tournament began in 1934, the legacy of Jones has loomed larger than life at the Augusta National Golf Club, eclipsing the greatness of Jack Nicklaus, the swashbuckling magnitude of Arnold Palmer and the dominance of Tiger Woods.

It has been a beacon for all the best amateur players in the country, a light that shines on those fortunate to receive an invitation to the first major tournament of the season with possibly the most cherished of all prizes -- the green jacket.

Nathan Smith, maybe the finest amateur player in Western Pennsylvania history, has become part of that Masters lore.

Smith, 34, will be making his fourth appearance at the Masters when the tournament begins Thursday at Augusta National. There are any number of PGA Tour winners, past and present, who have never played in that many Masters.

In the 77-year history of the tournament, only 21 amateurs have made more appearances than Smith. Most of those, however, came at a time when the Masters had more lenient exemptions for amateur players.

Since 1970, as the qualifications tightened, only four amateurs have appeared in more Masters than Smith. He has achieved such notable stature by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship a record four times -- a feat that has always carried an invitation to the Masters.

"It's really hard to believe," Smith said. "It's pretty surreal. I don't have the words to describe it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I feel really lucky -- beyond lucky. Every time you go, you feel as though it's going to be your last. You try to soak it up and then you get to go back."

Smith has never made the cut. The closest he came was in his first year in 2004 when he was paired for the opening two rounds with Arnold Palmer, who was making his 50th and final appearance at the Masters.

During the second round, needing only a par at the final hole to make the cut, Smith was so consumed with trying to stay out of Palmer's way as the King made his final triumphant walk to the 18th green that he made double bogey. He missed the cut by two shots.

"I'd love to make the cut," said Smith, a Brookville, Pa., native who lives in Allison Park and is a member at Wildwood Country Club. "That's tough to do in a major championship field. The field, through the years, has gotten a lot stronger. Some of the former major champions aren't playing so they're replaced by younger guys like Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. And it seems like every time I go, the course gets longer and longer on those potato-chip greens."

Then he added, "I'm playing great. I love where my golf game is. But I don't know how that translates playing with Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson]."

To bring some perspective to what Smith has accomplished, both locally and nationally, consider:

• He is the first player in history to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship four times, besting the previous record held by Jay Sigel (3).

• He is the first Western Pennsylvania player to appear in two Walker Cups -- the amateur version of the Ryder Cup -- since William C. Fownes, son of the Oakmont founder, in the early 1920s.

• Only 16 players in history have won more United States Golf Association titles than Smith (4), a list headed by Woods (9) and Jones (9).

• He is the first player from Western Pennsylvania to win the Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, a prestigious and nationally acclaimed tournament that is more than 60 years old.

"He's got four USGA championships in a nine-year stretch and that's unique at any level," said Jeff Rivard, executive director of the West Penn Golf Association that named Smith the player of the decade for 2000. "To win three in four years is simply unparalleled."

The only player from Western Pennsylvania to have more USGA titles than Smith is Carol Semple Thompson (7), who won three U.S. Amateur titles and four U.S. Senior Amateur titles in her career.

"Let's put it this way," Rivard said. "He's getting to the level on the men's side that Carol has achieved on the women's side. But four of Carol's seven USGA titles are as a senior, and he's not even a senior yet."

Playing partners, friends

It would not be entirely accurate to refer to Smith as a late-bloomer. After all, he was a four-time NCAA Division III All-American and a two-time NCAA Division III regional player of the year at Allegheny College in Meadville. But it wasn't as though he was being recruited by national golf powers coming out of Brookville High School.

And he wasn't even considered the top amateur player in Western Pennsylvania. That distinction belonged to his friend and frequent playing partner, Sean Knapp, a seven-time West Penn Amateur champion who has won more Western Pennsylvania Golf Association titles (38) than any player in history.

It was Knapp who served as Smith's mentor when the two first met in 1995. They became inseparable friends, often playing 36 holes every Saturday and Sunday at St. Jude Golf Club in Chicora, no matter the weather. When Smith got married, Knapp was his best man.

"There are a lot of intangibles that make a great player and it starts with his short game," Knapp said. "He has a tremendous short game, and he follows that up with a tremendous mind. His course management is impeccable and he drives it very well. Is there much left after that?"

But, it wasn't until he graduated from Allegheny that Smith's game began to dramatically improve. With added size came added length, something that had been lacking in his game. That led to a confidence that manifested itself when he won the 2002 Pennsylvania Amateur at Oakmont, the first of two state amateur titles he eventually would win.

One year later, he won the first of his four U.S. Mid-Amateur titles, becoming, at age 25, the youngest winner in the 32-year history of the event. And that began his meteoric ascent through the national amateur ranks.

"Nathan didn't beat me that often when we would play our 36 holes," said Knapp, who has competed in 13 U.S. Amateur championships and once lost to Tiger Woods, 2 and 1, in the round of 16 of the 1995 event. "That transformed itself in the spring and summer of 2003. I didn't beat him that much. I thought it was more a reflection of me at that time, but then he won the Mid-am and that was about the last time I could beat him."

Curiously, when Smith won his record fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur title in September, beating Garrett Rank of Canada, 1 up, in the 36-hole championship match, he almost never made it to the finals. He was 1-down to Knapp with two holes to go in a round-of-16 match and had to go extra holes to defeat his friend, 1 up.

"There's something unique about him," Knapp said. "I had him on the canvas twice and he wasn't going to get up. And I watched something that I've seen out of very few people. Not only did he get up, he got up and knocked me out on extra holes. It is very difficult to put someone like that away."

"I think he has an incredible calm under pressure," said Don Sargent, director of instruction at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, who has been Smith's swing coach since 1999. "You get comfortable being in that situation. I think Tiger's that way. Jack [Nicklaus] is that way. When they get there, they have that edge over everyone else."

Sending his message

There are advantages to having a four-time USGA champion and two-time Walker Cup participant as a member at your club.

"It's good for the club having him as a member," said Bernie Hough, head golf professional at Wildwood Country Club in Allison Park, where Smith has been a member since 2005. "When people come up and have families who want to join the club, every time I give my little talk, if Nathan's not at a national tournament and he's not playing somewhere, we can peek out and see him on the putting green. It's nice to point out we have a nationally ranked amateur in our club.

"I use him as a selling point because it's not all about just going out and playing golf. It's about the work ethic he puts in."

Smith is not your average country club member. He rarely plays golf at the club, preferring instead to use the facilities to hit balls and work on his short game. It is nothing for Smith to spend three to four hours on the putting green at Wildwood.

"I betcha he plays the course a handful of times the whole year, if that," Hough said.

But there can be one drawback to having a nationally decorated amateur who has appeared in four Masters at your club -- at least as far as the other members are concerned. He might just be tough to beat in the club championship.

Smith, though, is such a gentleman -- he has the humility of a Franciscan monk -- he declined to play in the club championship at Wildwood his first three years at the club. But, after some prodding from some of the members -- and amid some club chatter that he might have a tough time winning because he rarely plays the course -- Smith agreed to play in the club championship. That was bad news for the perennial club champion, Bill Lupone, who had won 18 of the previous 20 championships.

"Nathan went out and decided to play and I think he shot 67 the first day, shot 69 the second day and was probably leading by 13 or 14 [strokes] at that point," Hough said. "He went out for the final round and shot 73, but he had it on auto pilot. He three-putted twice. I hate to say it, and he won't admit it, but I think he did it on purpose, to be honest with you. He still ended up winning by 15."

Then Hough added, "He played the second year and won by 13 or 14 and decided to call it quits. I think he sent his message."

Smith is doing that to a lot of people, in more places than just his home club. He may not have the same impact on the field at the Masters, where merely making the cut is his primary objective. But he has sent his message to the world of amateur golf. And impacted history at Augusta National.

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Gerry Dulac:; twitter: @gerrydulac.


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