King invites amateur to event

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It wasn’t so much that Nathan Smith thought Arnold Palmer was kidding in the summer when he asked Western Pennsylvania’s top amateur player if he would like to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the PGA Tour.

Rather, Smith just figured it was a nice gesture by one of golf’s iconic figures that would eventually be overlooked or forgotten by the time the tournament rolled around in the spring.

Well, the Arnold Palmer Invitational begins today at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., and Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion from Allison Park, is in the 117-player field that annually attracts many of the top players in the world.

“That’s why he’s the King,” Smith said. “He’s the best.”

The invitation was unofficially extended in September when Smith was at Latrobe Country Club, playing in the Palmer Cup matches that pit the Tri-State PGA club professionals against the top amateur players from Western Pennsylvania.

After the round, Smith was in the clubhouse when he walked past Palmer’s table and felt someone grab his arm.

“He grabbed me with those thick hands and asked me if I wanted to play in his tournament,” said Smith, a two-time member of the U.S. Walker Cup team. “My reaction was like, well, OK, what tournament? Guys were at the table having a lot of fun, so I wasn’t sure if it was serious. Then I didn’t hear anything about it. I had a feeling it was going to happen, but you’re never sure.”

Then Smith added, “Lo and behold, the invite came. What an honor.”

“I think that it’s great he’s here,” Palmer said Wednesday from his office at Bay Hill. “It will be a great experience for him. He’s a wonderful young man and a great young player.”

Playing against the best players in the world is nothing new for Smith, 35. He has appeared in four of the past 10 Masters as the defending U.S. Mid-Amateur champ. This, though, is different. Smith didn’t know he was in the field until a couple of weeks ago, when he received an invitation from Palmer’s tournament committee.

“In the middle of our worst winter ever,” Smith said. “I had to go down to the [RMU Island Sports Center] dome and start banging balls.”

Smith has had little time to prepare. His only competitive golf came when he played in the Jones Cup in late January at Sea Island, Ga. Otherwise, he spent the past week playing in South Carolina and has managed to squeeze in four practice rounds this week at Bay Hill.

“This time is different because it’s two or three weeks earlier than Augusta and I think Bay Hill might be harder with the setup — U.S. Open rough, firm greens, the wind and the length,” Smith said. “But it is what it is. I’m just going to have fun.”

Smith has played in two events on the Tour, but never in a regular PGA Tour event. His goal at Bay Hill is the same as it was in his four appearances at Augusta National — just make the cut. Smith, though, was never able to do that.

The closest he came was in his first appearance in 2004, when he was paired the first two days with Palmer, who was making his 50th and final appearance at the Masters. Trying to stay out of Palmer’s way as the King made his final triumphant walk up the 18th fairway in the second round, Smith double-bogeyed the final hole to miss the cut by two shots.

Maybe Palmer wanted to make it up to him with a special invitation.

“I’m extremely humbled and honored that he asked,” Smith said.

Gerry Dulac: and Twitter @gerrydulac.

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