DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Almost a year after tragedy struck his family, Chris Smith found solace returning to his second home.
Smith, granted an exemption to play in the Memorial Tournament, struggled to a 78 in the opening round Thursday. But that wasn’t the point.
“It’s great to be back here. I love playing here and I probably try too hard when I come,” the Ohio State grad said of his homecoming to suburban Columbus. “I haven’t played very much and I struggled. I struggled bad today. Hopefully tomorrow will be better. Hopefully a lot better.”
That – hopefully tomorrow will be better – has been the Smith family mantra since last June 21. That was the day Chris’ wife, Beth, was killed in a fiery head-on collision on I-69 near Angola, Ind. Daughter Abigail, now 17, and son Cameron, now 13, were burned and badly injured. Chris was playing in an outing in Chicago.
Chris won the Buick Classic at Westchester in 2002 and has won five times on the Nationwide Tour. But his profession took a back seat to nursing his kids back to health.
Wounds – those visible and the ones that aren’t – take time to heal. But time passes and life goes on.
“It’s been almost a year and we’ve done a lot of living in the last year,” Smith said. “When people would ask how the kids are doing, I’d say, ‘They’re doing as good as can be expected.’ But they’re really doing better than that. They’re amazing. They’re doing great. Physically they’re healed up well and emotionally doing well.”
Chris has only played in four tournaments this year, making one cut at the Byron Nelson. He didn’t play the second half of last year.
Part of the healing process for him is returning to the game.
“It’s great to be out here and to see friends and to feel like I’m doing what I should be doing,” he said. “Today was not a lot of fun, but I do have a perspective on things and I’ll come out tomorrow and smile and have fun and hopefully I have a good round tomorrow.”
Smith has many, many friends on tour. They have welcomed him back with kind words, good-natured kidding and consolation.
He played at Muirfield Village with Justin Rose, who could only shake his head at what Smith has gone through and how he has handled it.
“He’s a complete gentleman. A brave man,” said Rose, tied for the lead. “And he holds himself as a true professional out on the golf course and I wish him the best.”
Players play for championships, fame and money. The past year has taught Smith to seek something else right now.
“You realize real quick what’s important and you realize real quick that golf isn’t the only thing,” he said softly. “I know I’ve spent the last 20 years thinking that golf was it. I love golf, I love playing golf and I will be good again, I know I will. It’s just a process and I’m going through the process. I’m enjoying the ride and even shooting 78 today, it at least lets me know where I’m at.”
There will still undoubtedly be difficult days ahead, but Smith doesn’t have to search to have his faith in a brighter future validated.
“I get up every day and look at two miracles that are staring at me across the breakfast table,” he said. “Things are going well.”
SINGH RELIEVED: Vijay Singh figured he was out of luck when he asked the USGA for an exemption to the U.S. Open, only to be turned down. Having fallen out of the top 50 in the world at the deadline, he was debating not showing up for the qualifier.
Then came the good news Tuesday when the USGA changed its mind.
“I think they went back and rethought it, and it was unanimous,” Singh said Thursday after opening with a 71. “It was a relief. I was hoping for an invite. I think I need to go out there and start playing the way I know how, just to play good. It’s going to be a good time.”
Singh is among four players to shoot 63 at the U.S. Open, doing it in the second round at Olympia Fields in 2003. The closest he came to winning was in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2, when he tied for third, two shots behind.
His exemption created a buzz at the Memorial, primarily because it was awarded so late. Tom Watson received a special exemption, the first from the USGA in five years, more than a month ago.
“I think it’s great,” Ernie Els said. “He’s been such a great player for a long time.”
USGA executive director David Fay said Thursday that the committee leaned on Nick Price as a precedent. Exemptions typically go to former U.S. Open champions, yet Price received one in 2005 because of his three majors.
“We knew by the time of Augusta that Nick probably wasn’t going to make it in,” Fay said. “Vijay was right on the edge (of the top 50) and then fell out at the last minute.”
Singh said he has been slowed this year by injuries, although Fay didn’t sound as though that were a big issue.
“I understand about health,” he said. “But I’m of the school that if you’re healthy enough to be playing, I don’t want to hear about it.”
DIVOTS: After a rain delay of 2 hours, 4 minutes early in the opening round, the field in the first round of the Memorial was pulled off the course for 34 minutes in the afternoon due to a threat of lightning. … Tiger Woods hit all 14 fairways while shooting a closing 65 to come back and win the 2009 Memorial. In Thursday’s opening round, he hit just seven and had a 72. … On the bag for Rickie Fowler, who shot a 65, was Ohio State head golf coach Donnie Darr. Darr was an assistant when Fowler played at Oklahoma State. … Sam Saunders, aka Arnold Palmer’s grandson, struggled to an 83 in his first appearance at Jack Nicklaus’ place, tying a tournament record with 11 5s.