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Mid-Am champ had a nice week at Augusta, and it was close to being great

Photo: Fred Vuich/SI

Nathan Smith missed the cut for the third time in three Masters appearances.

Augusta, Ga. — Fine is the line at Augusta National Golf Club. Nathan Smith watched as he carved a lovely fade around the trees guarding the right side of the 18th fairway. From his viewpoint, it appeared the ball bounced and carried onto the front third of the green, almost pin-high, a potentially fantastic shot.

But it actually bounced on the front fringe, rolled only a few feet onto the putting surface and never got past the green's false front. The ball rolled back off the green and into the fairway.

It was almost a good shot. Just like it was almost a good week for Smith, an amateur from the suburbs north of Pittsburgh. Almost, but not quite, and almost isn't quite good enough at the Masters. Smith, a three-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, got up and down for his par on 18, but he finished at eight over par after rounds of 75 and 77. He played well enough to score better, probably even make the cut, but there were too many almost shots. Three Masters, three missed cuts.

He'll leave the Masters with another batch of memorable moments but not the one he wanted most—walking up the fairway to the 18th green on a Sunday and receiving that loud ovation from the gallery.

"The Masters is everything you think it will be, and more," said Smith, 32. "It never gets old."

Actually, it was Smith who felt like he'd gotten old in a Monday practice round with tour pros Bo Van Pelt and Ryan Palmer. It was Van Pelt's second Masters, Palmer's third. "They were asking me questions about the course," Smith said. "It was pretty funny."

As usual, Smith had his father, Larry, as his caddie. He wore a green No. 10 on his white caddie jumpsuit and laughed when asked if this was the first time he'd ever been considered a ten. Larry is 63, big and athletic looking, but his knees aren't what they used to be. "Sometimes you have to hustle to keep up," he said, "and my hustle has kind of hustled away."

Informed that he's still 47 Masters appearances behind Augusta National caddie Carl Jackson, who loops for Ben Crenshaw, Larry laughed again. "I don't think I'm going to get there," he said.

"You're so lucky to be here once. And you appreciate it even more the third time."

The Smiths had an enjoyable week. Nathan played the Par-3 Contest with Rickie Fowler and Peter Uihlein, and last week spent several hours in the clubhouse during a rain delay with Phil Mickelson. Nathan's on-course highlights were back-to-back birdies Thursday, when he nearly holed a 60-degree wedge shot for eagle at the 15th, then sank a 20-foot putt at the 16th.

In previous visits, Larry carried the bag to the practice range and set it down in a spot next to Tiger Woods, just so he'd get the chance to watch him hit balls up close and personal. He did it again this year, and this time he got the opportunity to be introduced to Woods. "I just said, 'Hi, I enjoyed watching you play, best wishes, good luck to you,'" Larry said. "That was it."

After Thursday's late afternoon round in which he was paired with Kevin Streelman and former Masters champion Craig Stadler, Nathan admitted, "I'm, like, fried." He had just finished bogey-bogey. He had an early time Friday morning, and it turned out to be a less stressful day.

"It's kind of weird to say, but this time was maybe a little more enjoyable because I wasn't really close to making the cut," Nathan said. "So I was soaking it all in. Sometimes, you can get lost in being out here, but it was fun today. You never know, it could be your last one. I don't know how many times you can hit the lottery. I've been really fortunate and tried like heck to make the cut, but it gets tougher and tougher each year with these guys."

Smith didn't make a double bogey this week. "I thought that was one of the key things for me to make the cut," he said. "Unfortunately, I just made a lot of bogeys."

The Smiths—Nathan and his wife, Nicole, and Nathan's parents—bunked in a suite at the Sleep Inn. They'll stay in town all weekend. Larry will hang out at the caddyshack on the range. He loves watching the other pros practice and work. "Plus, they've got great food for us out there and a big-screen TV," he said. Nathan will walk the course and soak in the tournament on the weekend as a spectator. On Monday, the whole clan will drive back to Pittsburgh in two cars, an all-day trek.

"It's special to be here and special to have my dad on the bag," Nathan said. "It's the best thing ever."

He had a nice week. Was it a great week? Almost.

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