x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Golf: Open season for late bloomer Jesse Smith

Jesse Smith has overcome the odds and personal tragedy to take his first shot on the PGA Tour at the US Open, writes Jim Litke.

Golfer Jesse Smith will make his PGA Tour in the US Open.
Golfer Jesse Smith will make his PGA Tour in the US Open.

It is not until you run across a story like Jesse Smith's that you remember why this is called the US Open.

There is no shortage of longshots, wannabes and never-weres in the field. But scan a bio of any of the 155 other entrants who teed off yesterday and you will not find even one like his.

Smith is 33 and has yet to hit a shot on the PGA Tour. Golf was not even on his radar until he was well into his teens. He did not have much of an amateur career, either, unless you count talking his way onto the Colgate golf team.

While trying to carve out a living on the mini-tours from Canada to the Deep South afterward, he spent part of each year living in his grandfather's log cabin on the Six Nations Territory near Brantford, Ontario. It was hardly a hotbed for the game.

"One day up there, it was 95 degrees, really hot for that place, so I knocked off after four or five hours of playing and came inside," Smith recalled. "My grandfather came straight over and looked me in the eye. All he said was, 'Jesse, if you want to be better, you have to practise more'.

"I turned around and went back out. He died six years ago, but I can still hear those words."

Yet anyone who expected Smith to reach the big time would have bet it would be hockey or baseball. He learnt those games from his father, Guy, a full-blooded Mohawk who played at the University of New Hampshire and in the old World Hockey Association before becoming a high-school coach.

One day, Guy Smith dropped his son off at the UNH rink, went to park the car and suffered a fatal heart attack at age 44. In the aftermath, the golf courses Jesse played sparingly growing up became the quiet places he turned to cope with his father's death.

"From morning till the sun went down, he'd hit me ground balls," Smith said on Wednesday, on a final tour of Merion Golf Club in preparation for his opening round. "When he coached us, he'd hit more to me than the other kids, probably harder grounders, too. But he never short-changed me on the teaching end, either ...

"He touched a lot of people. When I qualified to play here, I got more than a few text messages from friends reminding me of that."

Outside the gallery ropes, Lynn Smith was near tears - and this was just the practice round.

"I always knew it would happen," she said. "He struggled with golf, and as a mother I had a hard time with it. He'd say, 'Trust me', but honestly, it was hard.

"He struggled so much. But his father was the same way. He played pro hockey, then went back to school to become an equine veterinarian."

"He wanted Jesse to follow his own path. I guess," she added, brightening, "this is it."

It should not come as a surprise that finally making it into the field at a US Open was a struggle, too. On the second day of qualifying at Old Oaks Country Club some 10 days ago, Smith found himself at the par-4, 11th, facing a delicate pitch shot to a sliver of a green. He would have been happy to keep it within 15 feet. Instead, he holed it for an eagle to get to 3 under, then put years of persevering to good use by taking that score to the clubhouse as co-medallist and punching his ticket to the Open.

All those people who came to believe Smith might be that one-in-a-million late bloomer finally had something to hold on to. "A shot in the arm," is what David Glenz called it. He is Smith's coach and was his caddie that day.

"The self-belief this kid has is infectious. I finally saw what I knew was in him.

"I'll be honest. I almost expected more sooner, because he has plenty of talent. But considering Jesse's background, maybe that's where the lack of experience comes in. Winning at any level has a memory to it. We'll see if this sticks."

It might be too much to expect a guy with such a thin resume to make it into the weekend.

If so, the small gallery that accompanied Smith around on Wednesday - Glenz was back on the bag, and a handful of Guy Smith's old UNH hockey pals were escorting Lynn Smith from hole to hole - was determined to wring as much satisfaction as possible from every moment.

"But what keeps me coming back is that the game is a lot like life," Smith said.

"Everybody is faced with adversity, in different ways and different times, but what you end up with is usually a good reflection of how you dealt with it."