JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The U.S. Amateur has unmistakably become a college kids’ tournament. From the end of the NCAA Championship in June to the start of fall classes later this month, the most ambitious collegians will spend about three months on the road, playing five to seven events, staying sharp and bolstering their résumé.
And then there are competitors like Nathan Smith, a financial adviser from Pittsburgh. Sure, he’s a highly accomplished player, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, but he plays when his schedule allows. Life often intervenes. At 36, he’s playing a 7,490-yard course against kids half his age, and with each passing year it gets more difficult to contend.
Which is why he beamed with pride early Wednesday morning, when a birdie and a par were enough secure one of the four spots in a 17-man playoff. His reward: a first-round matchup with Lee McCoy, a junior at Georgia and a co-medalist here, after rounds of 67-68.
“I’m sure he’s excited and licking his chops that he gets the old guy,” Smith said, smiling.
Smith has teed it up at the U.S. Amateur all but twice since 1999, but rarely has he survived the 36-hole qualifier. His last match-play appearance was 2009 at Southern Hills, but he was promptly bounced in the first round. In 2005 at Merion, he reached the Round of 32. His best result was in 2000 at Baltusrol, when he reached the third round.
“It’s been a while,” he said, “but I’ve been playing and trying.”
And he’s been coming close, as he did in both 2010 (Chambers Bay) and ’11 (Erin Hills). In a similar situation with several playoff participants and only a few spots available, Smith “made a mess of the holes” and was sent packing early.
On Wednesday, while playing the 616-yard par-5 first hole on Atlanta Athletic Club’s Riverside Course, Smith left 132 yards for his third shot, “nervously boned up” a pitching wedge to 6 feet and sank the putt. That was enough to reach the second playoff hole, the 189-yard eighth, where Smith found the center of the green and two-putted for par.
Smith, who earned the clinching point at last year’s Walker Cup, is one of three mid-ams who advanced to match play, joining fellow Walker Cupper Todd White and Chris Waters, an accountant in nearby Atlanta. Really, there should have been four moving on – Mike McCoy, 51, was one shot inside the cut line after 36 holes, but he was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
That Smith shot the same scores as Jack Maguire, the 20-year-old ACC Freshman of the Year from Florida State, is part of the beauty of this event.
“There’s a good crop of mid-ams who still play a lot of golf and are pretty competitive,” Smith said.
Now, with five hours to kill until his 2:10 p.m. tee time, he will spend his downtime like most men his age – with lunch and a nap.