SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Seven holes early. That’s when Nathan Smith began to wonder what it would feel like to earn the clinching point for the U.S. Walker Cup team.
Hey, forgive the man’s mind for wandering.
After all, he was thinking about 2011. Smith was the lone mid-amateur on that stacked team at Royal Aberdeen, the squad with uber-prospects Spieth, Uihlein, Henley, English and Cantlay, the group that was stunned, 14-12.
He was thinking about his own disappointing career record in this event: 2-4-1, including 0-2-1 in singles.
And he was thinking about the way his foursomes match ended Saturday, when he left a putt short on 18 that cost the Americans a point.
So, after pouring in a 15-foot birdie putt on the eighth green to build a 2-up lead in his singles match against GB&I’s Nathan Kimsey on Sunday, well, yeah, Smith got a little misty.
“You just want it so much,” he said later. “It’s almost overwhelming.”
Unlike his teammates – many of whom are All-Americans with glitzy resumes, swing coaches and seven-digit futures – Smith is a financial adviser in Pittsburgh. He is married, 35 years old, getting older, finding it harder and harder to find the necessary time to practice and play, to duplicate the form that netted him four U.S. Mid-Am titles.
There was doubt that he would be able to even make this team. At least that’s what he told Jim Holtgrieve in 2011, and it left the U.S. captain unsettled, especially since Holtgrieve himself was 35 years old when he played in the Walker Cup.
So Holtgrieve began the process of lobbying the USGA to require that two mid-ams be named to the team. He hoped the rule would go into effect in 2015, but the bluecoats liked the idea so much, they instituted it for this year’s competition.
Did Smith think he would have made the team without the new rule?
“I didn’t think there was any way,” he admitted. “The college guys are too good now.”
Which is why Smith decided to take a backseat, even before this two-day event began. During a practice round at National Golf Links he told Holtgrieve, and then later his teammates, that he wanted to compete in only two sessions – Saturday foursomes and Sunday singles – despite playing some of the best golf of his life.
“That’ll let the other college guys loose,” he said, before adding, “I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Said Justin Thomas, 20: “That’s a huge reason why he’s been so successful for us. It’s because there’s an age and maturity that a college kid doesn’t have.”
Smith’s absence opened the door for the other mid-am, Todd White, a 45-year-old high-school teacher in South Carolina, to prove that he was worthy of a spot on the team, too.
Though he dropped both foursomes matches with Cal’s Michael Weaver, White led for all but four holes of a 4-and-3 singles win over GB&I’s Rhys Pugh, a talented 19-year-old who went 3-0 in the 2011 Walker Cup, played in this year’s British Open and won the 2012 European Amateur.
Earlier Sunday, U.S. leadoff man Bobby Wyatt improved to 3-0-1 (and 9-0-3 in ’13, including the NCAA and Palmer Cup) with an opening victory, further cementing his standing as the Man of the Match, if only the event bestowed such an honor.
Right behind Wyatt was Thomas, playing in his final amateur event and dealing with an ailing back, who pummeled his opponent, 6 and 4, and left little doubt that the cup was heading back to the States.
And then it was Smith’s turn in the spotlight, finally.
All that the U.S. needed was a half point to reclaim the cup, and Smith’s par-4 on the 15th hole was good enough. His teammates spilled on the green to celebrate, the crowd chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, and Smith smiled and tipped his cap. A hole later, he defeated Kimsey, 4 and 3, capping the feel-good story of a Walker Cup rout.
“This ranks right at the top of my list,” Smith said. “I’ve never wanted a point so much in my life.”
Apparently neither did the rest of the Americans, who won seven of the 10 singles matches Sunday – and earned 13 1/2 of the possible 18 in both weekend sessions – for a final score of 17-9. It was their most lopsided victory in 16 years, their fourth win in the past five matches, and undoubtedly the most satisfying moment of Smith’s career.
“It’s the best feeling in the world right now,” he said.
As the 10 matches got underway Sunday afternoon, Smith’s father, Larry, retreated to the National clubhouse, too anxious to watch. He didn’t return to the top of the hill until about an hour after Smith scored the clinching point, when the celebration was winding down.
Father and son finally reconnected in front of the famous windmill behind 17 tee, and they hugged for a few seconds. Then Smith stepped back, smiled, and put his father’s face in his hands.
“Can you believe it?” he asked, beaming. “This is almost too good.”