Earlier this month, as Pittsburgh basked in the first springlike temperatures of the year, Nathan Smith started getting nervous. The sudden warm spell meant that the rapidly receding snowpack would soon reveal Smith’s Âsecret: He had kept his golf game sharp during an uglier-than-usual winter by driving to Wildwood Golf Club, where he’s a member, shoveling off a patch of turf on the practice range and hitting balls into the white stuff. “There were balls everywhere under the snow,” Smith says.
Sean Knapp, the best man in Smith’s wedding and a storied figure in Pittsburgh amateur golf, laughs when he hears of Smith’s dilemma. “Yeah, and it’s probably not just a couple of dozen balls. It’s probably a couple thousand.”
The Masters is around the corner, and Smith, a 31-year-old financial representative and the 20th-ranked amateur in the world, is in the field by virtue of winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur last October. Living in Pittsburgh’s North Hills area, where the snowfall reached near-record levels, isn’t conducive to preparing for the Masters. But then neither is having a full-time job or being an amateur.
As for shoveling off a place to practice, Smith says, “I doubt Phil Mickelson has to do that.” Still, Smith is looking ahead to his second Masters appearance with an odd mix of anticipation and panic. “There are times when I think I have everything under control, and then I see a commercial on ESPN—’The Masters, coming in April . . .’—and it’s like, Uh-oh, I’d better go hit some balls or something,” Smith says. “It’s exciting and also a little surreal.”
It’s not as if Smith was completely snowbound this winter. He played in amateur events in Argentina and Sea Island, Ga., and found time for three trips to Augusta, where his usual routine was to drive down on Friday night, play 18 holes on Saturday and a quick 18 on Sunday before making the trek home. You talk about long drives. Smith’s were 10 hours, 600 miles one way.
Smith’s Masters memories are already piled higher than snowdrifts. He played in the 2004 Masters after winning the ’03 U.S. Mid-Am, getting an unexpected pairing with another ‘Burgher: Latrobe’s Arnold Palmer, who was playing in his 50th and final Masters. Smith also played a practice round with Palmer before he found out that they would be paired for the tournament. Smith remembers warming up on the range when he heard an eruption of cheers. “I knew somebody big must be coming,” he says. It was Palmer. USGA president Fred Ridley joined them for 18, then Smith and Ridley joined Palmer for lunch upstairs in the champions’ locker room, a fortress of solitude reserved for Masters winners and their guests.
Then there was the moment when Larry Smith, Nathan’s father and his caddie for the week (mainly because Smith can’t find anyone who works for less, Dad likes to say) brazenly plopped Nathan’s bag down next to Tiger Woods’s on the practice range. “I wanted to see Tiger up close,” says Larry, a retired fifth-grade teacher. “That was the best chance I was ever going to get.”
Nathan was apoplectic. “I can’t believe my dad had the stones to do that,” he says. “So now I’m hitting balls with Tiger, and I’m rope-hooking this three-iron out there maybe 205 yards, swinging as hard as I can to impress him. Meanwhile, Tiger hits this six-iron in the air, way high, and it’s floating, floating, floating—and carrying about 225. Vijay Singh is on the range swinging this big weighted club. Gary Player is holding court. It was all too much.”
Even registering at the tournament office was memorable. “The first question when you check in at an amateur tournament is usually, ‘Will you be attending the barbecue?’ ” Smith says. “The first question when I checked in at the Masters was, ‘Who should we contact if a death threat is made against you?’ A death threat? I gave them my teacher’s name, Don Sargent. I didn’t want my parents involved because even if there was a death threat, I was still playing.”
Wednesday’s par-3 contest was a blur. Byron Nelson was stationed by the 1st tee. Ridley and Phil Mickelson joined Smith, and while they were waiting to begin, Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus and Mike Weir walked up. When the green cleared, Mickelson told Smith, a little rattled by his famous company, to go ahead and hit. He skulled a nine-iron right at the pin. “Somebody said, ‘Wow, what a knockdown shot!’ ” says Smith. “Oh, my gosh, I skulled it so bad, but it somehow checked up 22 inches from the pin and the place went crazy. Phil gave me a wink and said, ‘Sounded solid.’ I didn’t fool him.”
Smith’s closest-to-the-pin held up, so he went home with some Masters crystal, now proudly displayed on a shelf above the television at his father’s house. When a pipe burst while Larry and his wife, Vicky, were wintering in Myrtle Beach, he admitted that his first thought was, Is the Masters crystal O.K.? “I hope he leaves it here forever,” Larry says, “but I try not to bring it up much.”
In his first official Masters round Smith shot a six-over 78, but on Friday he was two under through 17 holes and needed a par at the 18th to make the cut. He hit a poor drive left and, noticing what looked like 20,000 people congregating around the green to say goodbye to Palmer, dumped his approach into the front bunker. He ran a 20-foot par putt past the hole, then, wanting to get out of Palmer’s way, rushed the comebacker and made double bogey. Palmer putted out and made a tearful exit to a long ovation.
“I remember looking up from the front bunker and seeing the CBS guys in the tower and thinking, If I skull this I might kill Jim Nantz,” Smith says. “I’m in the scoring tent trying to sign the scorecard, and I look up and there’s a camera—we’re on national TV. I was keeping Palmer’s card. I’ve never felt so much pressure signing a scorecard.”
Smith was young then (25) and considering a pro career. A few weeks later, though, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder during a round, had surgery and didn’t swing a club for the rest of the year. He finished his MBA at Clarion, and it was another two years, he says, before he was fully recovered. “If I ever had a window for pro golf,” says Smith, who has never been a long hitter, “that probably closed it.”
He married Nicole Bianco, his high school sweetheart, on Labor Day weekend in 2005 and has understanding business associates, who allow him to play in enough summer tournaments to stay sharp. “I’m really happy where my life is—everything is about perfect,” says Smith, who starred on last year’s victorious Walker Cup team and was a member of the three-man Pennsylvania side that won the USGA State Team Championship.
“Nathan is spectacularly unspectacular,” says Knapp, who dominated western Pennsylvania amateur golf in the ’90s the way Smith did in the ’00s. “I’d put his short game against almost anybody’s. It’s Tour quality. Same for his putting. Nathan doesn’t miss a putt he needs to make. He’s a killer on the course. All great players are.”
This trip to the Masters means something different from the one in ’04. “I played with Arnold Palmer and had my dad on the bag,” Smith says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.” Maybe it does. Smith has overcome that shoulder injury, is playing the best golf of his life and is taking Larry back to Augusta. Instead of a Masters Sunday spent in front of a high-definition TV with a pile of chocolate-covered pretzels—a family tradition—ÂSmith will savor the week surrounded by golf’s greatest players and best galleries, with Dad back on the bag.
“It was an emotional moment the first time we drove up Magnolia Lane,” Larry says, admitting that he and Nathan were teary-eyed. “It was just as emotional when we left on Sunday because I never thought we’d be back. To do it again, together, is so special. It’s a dream come true, twice.”