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Smith Wins Record Fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur Title
Nathan Smith of Pittsburgh became the first four-time winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, earning a 1-up victory over Garrett Rank of Canada in Thursday's 36-hole final conducted at the par-71, 7,078-yard Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill.
Smith, 34, becomes just the 15th person in USGA history to win the same championship at least four times. The list includes such greats as Jack Nicklaus, Mickey Wright, Carol Semple Thompson and Bob Jones, for whom the Mid-Amateur trophy is named.
"Any time you can say that you've done something that nobody else has, no matter what it is - sports or life or anything - it feels pretty surreal," said an overwhelmed Smith.
The 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, for players ages 25 and older, is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
Both players are fully exempt into the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur, which will be held at the Country Club of Birmingham in Alabama. Smith will also likely receive an invitation to the 2013 Masters Tournament, his fourth opportunity to make the drive down Magnolia Lane. "I'll think about it a lot," said Smith. "Right now I'm really enjoying this and taking that in."
Smith threatened to run away from Rank during the morning 18, winning holes nine through 11 to take a 3-up lead. But Rank chipped away at the deficit, driving the green at the par-4 15th and finding the hole for eagle from 43 feet. At the ensuing par-4 16th, Smith missed a 5-foot par putt, and Rank converted his 4-foot par to pull within one.
"He just kept coming," said Smith of his tenacious opponent. "It's almost like you're out there guarding [basketball Hall of Famer Michael] Jordan. You think you have him in the first quarter for four points, then he goes off for 28 in the second quarter on you."
Rank knew that he was lucky to still be in the championship fight, especially given Smith's Mid-Amateur track record. "Nathan and I both didn't have our best stuff out there this morning," said Rank, 25, a member of Golf Canada's national team and a referee in the Ontario Hockey League. "I managed to stay alive, being only one down going into the afternoon." Given the usual concessions for match play, Smith shot the equivalent of 5-over 76 in the morning 18, while Rank posted a 77.
As the afternoon 18 progressed, it looked like experience would outlast youth. Rank made a mess of the par-3 20th hole. In a right greenside bunker off the tee, Rank sent his next two shots to opposite ends of the green before settling for double bogey and conceding Smith's 8-foot par putt.
Smith then regained his 3-up lead when Rank's par attempt at the par-3 24th hole just burned the lip of the hole. However, Rank went on a tear midway through the second nine. Wins at Nos. 31 through 33, including a 4-foot birdie at the par-5 32nd after reaching the green in two, squared the match.
"I was just trying to stay with him, and I thought if I could kind of just hold serve on [Nos. 32 and 33]…" said Smith. "I lost both of them, so throw that plan out the window."
At the 35th hole, Rank missed the green to the right with an 8-iron, and his downhill birdie chip from a "dicey" lie in the rough rolled 27 feet past the hole. Smith's two-putt par from 35 feet was good enough to earn a 1-up lead going to the final hole. "I had the momentum at the time so I was just trying to go with it," said Rank. "Unfortunately, I hit a bad chip and it rolled down the slope on me."
Both Smith and Rank were in the fairway off the tee on the par-5 18th, but Smith's 2-iron second shot found the first cut of rough to the right of the fairway, 115 yards short of the green. The lie, combined with the close tree line, made for a tricky approach.
"I just kind of made a gap over the trees there," said Smith. "I had to go at it with a 1 up lead and just take it right at the pin and see what happens."
Smith's approach landed hole high and left him a 20-footer for birdie from the fringe. Rank conceded Smith's short par putt, and his downhill putt from 15 feet to force extra holes came up short.
Smith's road to victory was paved with some great names in amateur golf. His first-round match-up with 2010 USGA Senior Amateur champion Paul Simson was a pairing worthy of a championship final. In the round of 16, Smith faced Sean Knapp, the best man in his wedding and his teammate on Pennsylvania's winning team at the 2009 USGA Men's State Team Championship. And Tim Jackson, his semifinal opponent, is a two-time Mid-Amateur champion.
"I was just fortunate to get through," said Smith, looking back at his week in Illinois. "This one was the toughest by far. Each one has gotten tougher. The competition gets better, and the breaks don't go your way and you have to make them. I guess that's why nobody has won four."
Despite not taking the victory, Rank was satisfied with his performance at his first Mid-Amateur, having turned 25 just three days prior to the championship.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm not disappointed," said Rank, who will be back on the ice Friday night for an OHL preseason game. "But a week, 10 days down the road, I'm going to have a huge smile on my face and be really happy with what I achieved this week.
"It would have been nice to win, but finishing second isn't half bad, either."
In addition to next year's Mid-Amateur, Smith and Rank are fully exempt into the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Rank is also exempt into the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Va., a championship for which Smith is ineligible due to his membership at a private club. Both players also receive exemptions from local qualifying for the 2013 U.S. Open Championship.
The above report is courtesy of the USGA. For more information and full results, visit www.usga.org.