Mid-Am champion fights off weight for lead at Tri-State Open at New Castle Country Club

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NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Nathan Smith did not like the way he looked in pictures at the Masters, so he has changed his eating habits, lost 20 pounds and said he is back near "fighting shape."

Nobody in the field of 109 players at the Tri-State Open is about to argue.

Now, if he could only work on his memory.

Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, shot 3-under 69 Monday to grab the first-round lead in the 36-hole Tri-State Open at New Castle Country Club, a tournament that wasn't even supposed to be on his schedule.

Smith, 34, a Brookville, Pa., native who lives in Allison Park, should have been playing in Columbus, Ohio, or Rockville, Md., or one of the sectional qualifying sites for the U.S. Open. As the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champ, he automatically was exempt into the sectional qualifier of his choice.

But a funny thing happened on the way home from his fourth appearance in the Masters.

Smith simply forgot to enter the qualifier and was told he was too late when he contacted the United States Golf Association. So instead of having a chance to qualify for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, where he competed in the 2009 Walker Cup, he is playing at New Castle in the Tri-State PGA's second-oldest event.

"I didn't forget. I just had so much on my mind," Smith said. "You're playing in the Masters, you got a million things going on, you got tickets for everybody and you're trying to play in Masters. In past years, I'd come back home that Monday and turn it in. My bad. Shame on me."

It's also bad news for the rest of the field at the Tri-State Open.

After making his only bogey at the 197-yard seventh, Smith birdied four of the final 11 holes to finish a shot ahead of teaching professional Gene Walter of the Pennsylvania Golf Academy and West Virginia-based professional Scott Davis.

Three other players were another shot back at 71 -- Hannastown assistant Ryan Sikora, Valley Brook head professional Mike Papson and New Castle amateur and former Tri-State Open winner Ralph Litrenta.

Rob McClellan, who was given a spot as an alternate in the 36-hole sectional in Columbus, Ohio, declined to participate so he could defend his title in the Tri-State Open. That decision did not work out so well when McClellan, head professional at Butler Country Club, shot 78.

"I saw the pictures of myself at the Masters and I didn't like where I was," Smith said. "I was little hefty, up to about 225. Now I'm back to 204, back to fighting shape."

But even Smith's closing flurry couldn't match the finish by Walter, who made four birdies and an eagle on the back nine at the A.W. Tillinghast-designed course to shoot 70.

After shooting a front-nine 38 and making pars on the first two holes of the back nine, Walter went on a tear. He drove the 346-yard 12th hole and made an 18-footer for eagle, hit a pitching wedge to 5 feet for birdie on the 148-yard 13th, then two-putted each of the back-to-back par-5s -- Nos. 15 and 16-- for birdie. He finished off his torrid stretch with a 15-feet birdie at the 408-yard 15th.

Then there was Davis, an unattached pro from Nitro, W.Va., who got a pre-round swing tip from his friend Bob Meyer of Valley Brook Country Club and finished tied with Walter. Davis, 57, also is feeling better after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the fall.

"I asked Bob about taking the club back, should it be like this or like that, and he said neither," Davis said. "Amazing after 30 years I still have to ask about how to take the club back."

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Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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