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The life of a mid-am: Balancing home, jobs and golf

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It’s a muggy afternoon at the U.S. Amateur, and Nathan Smith is killing time on the far end of the range. To his left, a fraught high-schooler is instructing his caddie to record his down-the-line swing, to ensure that his lines are perfect. To his right, a college player is sopping wet after plowing through a second bag of balls, no closer to a quick fix.

And then there’s Smith. His plain white polo is slightly untucked. He doesn’t wear a glove. He chats easily with his father, Larry. And amid a sea of stand bags adorned with school logos, he wields just a single club. It’s a beat-up Medicus Power Hitter driver – a weighted training aid – and for the next few minutes, he nonchalantly smacks yellow range balls off the deck, each one with a crisp, piercing ball flight.

“I’ve had 30 or 40 people ask me if I’m a dad or a coach or if I’m with the USGA,” he says later. “I guess if you’re over 22, they don’t realize you can play.”

Little did they know Smith, 38, is the most accomplished mid-amateur (age 25 and older) in golf, boasting a résumé that includes four Masters berths, three Walker Cup appearances, a U.S. Four-Ball title, and countless state and local championships … all while working as a financial adviser in Pittsburgh.

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Much of the romanticism of amateur golf has been lost in recent years, but Smith is a torchbearer for traditionalists, offering a glimpse into the kind of competitive, well-balanced life that still exists among the play-for-no-pay set. Even after age 22.

Smith was a promising junior in Pennsylvania who later became a four-time All-American at Division III Alleghany College. “I didn’t set the world on fire,” he said, and so he never even considered the pro route after college. He went to grad school, earned his MBA in finance and landed a job at a firm in downtown Pittsburgh. (He is now an investment adviser with Executive Wealth Counselors.)

For the first few years, at least, his competitive aspirations were put on hold. The golf season in western Pennsylvania is short enough, and it took time to expand his list of clients. His daily routine consisted of hitting balls when the range opened, heading into the office and then stroking a few putts after work. “There just isn’t enough time to play unless it’s with clients,” he said. “The only time I’m really playing is when I’m in tournaments.”

Even so, Smith won the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur, and his game improved to the point that he entered Q-School as an amateur in ’05, if only out of curiosity. He nearly advanced through second stage but came up short, dropping into golf’s no man’s land, with no status anywhere. He never tried again.

It turned out to be a wise decision, as Smith captured the most Mid-Am titles in history (four) – thus becoming the rare Masters participant with a master’s degree – and earned the respect of players such as Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, whom he counts as friends and former Walker Cup teammates.

The next phase of Smith’s career, however, is uncertain. This was the final year of his U.S. Amateur exemption. He’ll keep trying, of course, because he relishes the camaraderie, but it’s clear that the next wave of mid-am talent – fresher, hungrier, better – has swept through.

“I can still sleep great at night knowing that I made the right decision because of all these amazing experiences,” he said. “I could have turned pro and been living week to week out of my car. It’s just so hard out there.”

THAT’S WHAT TODD WHITE quickly realized, after taking his lumps in the pros. A former All-American at Furman, he toiled for five years on low-level mini tours, the names of which he can’t even remember. During his downtime, he worked as a substitute teacher and spoke to youth groups in South Carolina. Soon, he discovered that was his true calling.

“Guys were beating my brains in every week in the pros,” he said. “It was not only my game hadn’t reached that level, but the lifestyle too. I grew tired of packing my suitcase for three to four weeks at a time and splashing back home and packing back up again.”

White settled down at Dorman High School outside Spartanburg, where he coached the football and golf teams. In 1998, he applied for amateur reinstatement with the USGA and waited three years to learn about his status. “I can still remember the day the letter came from the USGA,” he said.

The issue of amateur reinstatement remains controversial – “I’m personally appalled,” said legendary amateur Trip Kuehne – with the former pros who couldn’t cut it at the next level threatening to wipe out the 9-to-5 everymen who crave competition. “But it’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” White said. “It has opened all those doors for me again. I had no success as a professional, so if there wasn’t that avenue, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the game the way I am now.”

Unlike Smith, who usually only plays client golf, White has no such restrictions as a high-school U.S. government teacher. The 48-year-old isn’t married, has no children, and works an ideal schedule for amateur golf, with school letting out at 3:30 p.m. each day and closed all summer.

White teamed with Smith to win the inaugural Four-Ball title in 2015, two years after he helped lead the U.S. to victory at the Walker Cup (despite being the oldest player on either side by a decade).

“My window is closing pretty soon,” he said, “so I’m going to ride this wave as long as I can. Internally, I want to see just how good I can be.”

NO MID-AMATEUR HAS BEEN better of late than Scott Harvey. The son of North Carolina Hall of Famer Bill Harvey, Scott, 38, grew up on the family-owned Sedgefield Driving Range, where he handpicked balls each night.

Like White, Harvey was young and ambitious when he tested the pro ranks, only to flame out after two years, disenchanted with the cheerless company, meager earnings and nonstop travel.

“If you’re on the PGA Tour, it’s totally different. It makes it all worth it,” he said. “But if you’re out there spending $2,000 a week trying to grind it out and break even, it’s not worth it. It’s getting to the Tour that makes it so hard.”

Back home, one of Harvey’s friends persuaded him into buying a rental property, which he later parlayed into his own management company, S&K Triad Properties. Most of his work can be done from the road, with a quick call, text or email, which provides enough freedom for a 12-tournament schedule. In the past few years, he has won the Mid-Amateur, captured the South American Amateur in Peru, played on the 2015 Walker Cup team in England and, at No. 67, become the highest-ranked American mid-am.  

“But I still have different concerns than most of the guys out here,” he said. “I’m concerned about having Advil to bring to the tournament, and if all my bills are paid, and making sure my wife and kid are taken care of. These guys’ biggest worry is whether they should bring a 2-iron or a 5-wood.”

Sure, on a weekly basis it remains an uphill climb for relevancy against the college contingent – Harvey is the only American mid-am ranked inside the top 200 in the world – but what continues to motivate these aging warriors are the perks dangled by the USGA. Not only does the Mid-Am winner receive a spot in the Masters, but recently the 10-man Walker Cup team has also featured at least two veterans. “If you can win a big tournament,” Smith said, “you’re kind of in the HOV lane.”

THE CAPTAIN OF THIS YEAR’S U.S. squad is Spider Miller, 66, a lifelong amateur who fully understands the sacrifices required to play at an elite level while also juggling work and home lives. But unlike today’s best mid-ams, Miller never was tempted by the pro game. There wasn’t enough money with purses and endorsements. Travel was inconvenient. And life on the road wasn’t conducive to a stable marriage. So in 1979, he started a beverage distribution company in Bloomington, Ind., and in the nearly four decades since, Best Beers, Inc. has expanded to two locations and about 100 employees.

Golf became a vehicle for his business – he might receive only five minutes for an office meeting, but he and a potential client could spend five hours together on the course. A two-time Mid-Am champion, he balanced those two passions for 15 years before deciding to concentrate full-time on his “real” job in 2000, a year after playing on his lone Walker Cup team.  

“The hardest part is the time away from home,” he said. “The feeling you get when you shoot 78 and you’re laying in a hotel room, thinking, 'What in the hell am I doing here? I need to be at work, or I need to be at my kid’s event.' That’s what wears on you.”

THE EXPLOSION OF PRIZE money on the big tours has seemingly eliminated the concept of the elite career amateur, which is why there is genuine intrigue among the amateur community about the direction that world No. 1 Maverick McNealy – whose accomplishments far exceed the current crop of mid-ams – will eventually choose for his career, whether it’s golf, business or, of course, both.

“It’d be a shot in the arm for amateur golf to see a guy go against the grain like that,” Smith said, “because we’ve never had a player of his caliber stay amateur.”

Smith and the other mid-ams offered no advice for what is a deeply personal decision, only stories of their own experiences and how it has shaped their unique careers.

“For everybody in college, amateur golf has almost become like a steppingstone,” White said. “But if I could do it all over again, I would have been a career amateur, because I wasn’t ready and I learned that I didn’t want that life. It took me a couple of years to realize that, and now I’m having more fun than I ever have.”