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

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 14, 2016, 11:45 am

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.” 

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Garcia leads as Valderrama Masters extends to Monday

By Will GrayOctober 21, 2021, 3:52 pm

Weather continues to be the enemy at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where Sergio Garcia remains in front as the tournament heads for a Monday finish.

European Tour officials had already ceded the fact that 72 holes would not be completed this week in Spain, but players were not even able to finish 54 holes before another set of thunderstorms rolled in Sunday afternoon to once again halt play. Garcia remains in front at 10 under, having played seven holes of the third round in even par, while Lee Westwood is alone in second at 7 under.

Officials had previously stated an intention to play at least 54 holes, even if that meant extending the tournament to Monday, given that this is the final chance for many players to earn Race to Dubai points in an effort to secure European Tour cards for 2019. Next week's WGC-HSBC Champions will be the final event of the regular season, followed by a three-event final series.

Full-field scores from the Andalucia Valderrama Masters

Garcia, who won the tournament last year, started the third round with a four-shot lead over Ashley Chesters. He balanced one birdie with one bogey and remains in position for his first worldwide victory since the Asian Tour's Singapore Open in January.

Westwood, who has his son Sam on the bag this week, made the biggest charge up the leaderboard with four birdies over his first eight holes. He'll have 10 holes to go when play resumes at 9:10 a.m. local time Monday as he looks to win for the first time since the 2015 Indonesian Masters.

Shane Lowry and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano are tied for third at 6 under, four shots behind Garcia with 10 holes to play, while Chesters made two double bogeys over his first four holes to drop into a tie for sixth.

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Azinger 'lobbied' to captain Ryder Cup team a second time

By Rex HoggardOctober 22, 2018, 1:47 pm

In 2008, Paul Azinger became the first U.S. Ryder Cup captain in nearly a decade to lead a team to victory, doing so at Valhalla with his innovative “pod” system and a player-driven approach to leadership.

In the wake of that victory there were many, including the vast majority of his players, who said Azinger deserved a second chance to captain, but at the time the 12-time PGA Tour winner appeared to be undecided and the PGA of America named Corey Pavin the 2010 captain.

On Monday, Azinger was named NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst starting next year and among many revelations during an extended interview on “Morning Drive” he explained how much he wanted a second chance to captain.

“I wanted to do it again, I lobbied to do it again after we won in ’08, but I think I waited a little too long and they had already made a decision,” Azinger said. “The excuse I got was that there are more captains than there are Ryder Cups and I thought that was fair, but then they asked [Tom] Watson to do it again shortly afterward and I was like, ‘What, huh?’”

Watson was named captain of the 2014 U.S. team, which lost by five points and led to the creation of the Ryder Cup task force, which adopted many of Azinger’s ideas including his use of four-player pods.

It’s even more curious that Azinger was never given a second chance considering that Davis Love III was also named a captain twice, first in 2012 and again in ’16.

“I didn’t do it again, I didn’t carry the flag to Europe in 2010, which is fine, and now I’m never going to get to do it again,” he said.

As for who may be named the next U.S. captain after another loss to the Europeans last month in France Azinger could only speculate. “Looks like Wisconsin [site of the 2020 matches at Whistling Straits] and Steve Stricker are going to be a perfect match,” he said.

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Garcia wins rain-shortened Valderrama Masters

By Associated PressOctober 22, 2018, 12:48 pm

SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- Sergio Garcia won his third Andalucia Valderrama Masters on Monday, finishing the rain-shortened European Tour event four shots ahead of Shane Lowry.

Garcia shot a 2-under 69 for a 12-under 201 total in the 54-hole tournament at the Real Club Valderrama in southern Spain. Lowry shot a 66 in the final round.

Garcia, the tournament host, had a three-shot lead before the turn when stormy conditions suspended play on Sunday. He had three birdies and a bogey when play resumed on Monday, enough to add to his Valderrama titles in 2011 and 2017.

''It's amazing to be able to win here at Valderrama three times. It's a dream come true,'' the Spaniard said. ''This golf course is so challenging and for me to be able to go out there in the conditions we played in all week and shoot three rounds under par means a lot. I'm very proud of that and really excited about the week.''

Full-field scores from the Andalucia Valderrama Masters

Lowry was as close as one shot off the lead after a round that included seven birdies. His title chances ended with a double bogey at the par-3 15th hole.

''Obviously Shane was playing well, he got close to me, then unfortunately he doubled 15 and that gave me a little bit of an extra gap, with his double and my birdie on 14 opening it to four, and we kept it there until the end so that was nice,'' Garcia said.

Lee Westwood (70) finished tied for fifth.

Tournament officials reduced the event to 54 holes on Saturday after bad weather had forced several delays.

It was the 15th European Tour win for Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion.

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Paul Azinger Joins NBC Sports Group, Succeeding Johnny Miller as Lead Golf Analyst

By Golf Channel Public RelationsOctober 22, 2018, 12:15 pm

Azinger Will Be Lead Golf Analyst on Golf Channel and NBC Tournament Coverage, Contribute to Golf Central’s Live From the Masters,

Golf Channel’s Instructional Platforms and Future Golf Films Projects

Paul Azinger will become NBC Sports’ lead golf analyst in 2019, following Johnny Miller’s retirement at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (Jan. 31-Feb. 3). The announcement was made by Molly Solomon, executive vice president, content, Golf Channel.

“For nearly three decades fans tuning into NBC Sports’ golf coverage have been accustomed to a lead analyst that told it like it was, and that mantra will continue with Paul Azinger calling the action from our 18th tower,” Solomon said. “Following Johnny Miller is a tall order. However, we’re confident in Paul’s ability to serve our viewers with candor and sharp insight, pulling from his decorated professional golf career and extensive broadcast experience.”

“I have great admiration for both the quality of NBC Sports’ coverage and commitment to great storytelling, as well as the network’s deep commitment to the game I love,” Azinger said. “It is a great honor to cover a tremendous slate of PGA TOUR and marquee events, including THE PLAYERS, The Open, Ryder Cup and Tokyo Olympics. Additional opportunities to contribute to instructional and historical projects, as well as Golf Channel’s top-notch news platforms, makes this the role of a lifetime.”

“Paul is one of the most perceptive minds in golf,” said Tommy Roy, lead golf producer, NBC Sports. “His innate ability to dissect the action in front of him and convey it to the viewer in such a concise, assured manner is what we value most across our tournament broadcast team.”

Additionally, Azinger will contribute to Golf Channel’s portfolio of platforms, ranging from Golf Central’s Live From the Masters alongside former colleague Mike Tirico; develop instructional content for both on-air and via Revolution Golf; and develop documentary projects for Golf Channel’s Emmy-nominated and critically-acclaimed Golf Films.

Azinger’s NBC Sports schedule in 2019, which will regularly include all four days of tournament coverage on Golf Channel and NBC, will kick off at the WGC-Mexico Championship (Feb. 21-24). NBC Sports will allow Azinger to continue to call The Masters for the BBC, as well as the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on FOX.

Paul Azinger Bio:

After playing for Florida State University, Azinger’s professional career highlights include 17 worldwide wins, including 12 PGA TOUR wins and the 1993 PGA Championship, as well as captaining the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Following his breakthrough major championship victory at the PGA Championship at Inverness, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After battling the disease for months with intensive chemotherapy and radiation, he was able to return to golf and received the Golf Writer’s Association of America Ben Hogan Award in 1995, which recognizes a professional golfer who remains active in the sport despite serious illness or physical handicap. Azinger’s comeback was fully realized in 2000, when at the age of forty, he won the Sony Open in Hawaii.

From 2006-2015 he served as the lead golf analyst for ABC and subsequently ESPN. In 2016, he joined Fox Sports' team for its slate of USGA Championships. Paul enjoys many hobbies off the course, including an affinity for poker and foosball, as well as maintaining a consistent schedule of all types of fishing. Azinger and his wife Toni reside in Bradenton, Fla., near their daughters Josie (son-in-law Sebastian) and Sarah Jean (son-in-law Tim). They are proud grandparents of Campbell and Houston.