Brookville's Smith ready for another Masters
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Nathan Smith arrived at Augusta National on Friday beaming with confidence. Unlike his previous three trips to the storied, picturesque course, he wasn't in awe.
Still, he found himself absorbed with the pristine beauty of the blooming magnolias and azaleas illuminating Amen Corner. And he couldn't tee it up without pausing to appreciate the magnificence of the near-perfectly aligned dogwoods guarding the fairways.
The Brookville native will need a singular focus when he reaches the first tee Thursday to begin an improbable quest to capture the year's first major: the Masters.
“It's hard to believe I'm back again,” said Smith, one of six amateurs in the field. “It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience I've done four times.”
Smith, 34, earned his fourth Masters invitation last fall by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill. He narrowly survived the challenge of Garrett Rank in a grueling 36-hole final that helped strengthen him mentally.
Don Sargent, Smith's swing coach, is convinced his star pupil is mentally tough enough to make the cut at Augusta for the first time.
“I think he's more comfortable this time than he's ever been before,” said Sargent, director of instruction at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. “I don't think he'll be overwhelmed as he's been in the past.
“He told me he feels good about his game, especially after playing with Tom Watson in front of 40,000 people during a practice round (Monday). It doesn't get more daunting than that.”
Admittedly, Smith endured far more angst during his Masters debut in 2004 when paired with Arnold Palmer, who was playing for the 50th and final time. The two-time Walker Cup participant still is feeling somewhat anxious, yet excited, about this opportunity.
“It's important to play the practice round in front of the people and deal with the pressure,” he said. “I have to get acclimated to the people and the course. Hopefully by Thursday I'm desensitized by having 50,000 people watching.”
More important, Smith got a feel for Augusta National while playing practice rounds with three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Russell Hensley and Watson, a five-time British Open winner.
The key to finishing above Friday's expected even-par cut line is getting off to at least an even-par 72 start. The course, particularly the sloping fairways and wickedly quick greens, probably won't tolerate errant shots if the temperatures rise as expected prior to the second round.
“The weather will be warm, so it's important to get off to a good start,” said Smith, an investment advisor who earned an MBA at Clarion. “You have to hold in there to give yourself a good chance after 36 holes to make the cut.
“The course keeps getting harder and longer. The guys are getting stronger, but it's a still a tough task. You've just got to play really well and do a lot of things well to make the cut.”
Smith needed only a par on No. 18 to advance to the weekend nine years ago, but a closing double-bogey left him two shots shy of the cut line. In 2010 and '11, he faded on the back nine in the second round to miss the cut.
The Allegheny College graduate has worked tirelessly with Sargent to smooth out his swing in an effort to improve his accuracy, particularly off the tee.
“(Smith) has taken extra movement out of his golf swing, which has allowed him to become more consistent with his ball striking and control,” Sargent said. “None of the changes have been specifically for Augusta National, but we've tried to make him a better golfer — all of which have allowed him to win multiple Mid-Amateur championships.”
Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur, demanded accuracy off the tee and precise approach shots when he designed Augusta National. As a result, even short hitters like Smith and former winners Zach Johnson and Mike Weir have a realistic chance at claiming a green jacket.
“Certainly it helps to be a long hitter, but to get to the pins you have to be on the proper side of the fairway,” Sargent said. “Some of the shorter hitters put the ball in the proper spots to attack the golf course.”
Smith isn't likely to keep pace with Mickelson, four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods and defending champion Bubba Watson off the tee. So he'll have little room to err with his mid- and long-iron approach shots.
“It's a big-hitters course, and the smart money is on the guys who can consistently get to the par 5s in two,” Smith said. “They can attack the golf course the way (Bubba) Watson did last year or the way Phil did (in 2010) or Tiger Woods did in winning.
“But I have to play my game, which is put the ball in the fairway and get the ball onto a section of the greens where you can have an easy two-putt. Sometimes missing the green in the right section is better than hitting the green in a section you can't two-putt.
“The one statistic that goes unnoticed is scrambling. In the past, the winner has had a scrambling percentage of 78 percent.”
Smith, who fine-tuned his game at Wildwood Golf Club in Allison Park and Sewickley Country Club, is looking to scramble his way into the weekend for the first time at Augusta National.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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