CANONSBURG – When Nathan Smith stands on the No. 1 tee to begin the Mylan Classic Thursday, chances are, he’ll be nervous.
The hilly layout of the Southpointe Golf Club is treacherous and a tremendous test of ability for any golfer. It might make one’s knees a little weak.
But the 34-year-old Smith is more than prepared for it. He has been in more pressurized situations than the majority of amateur golfers.
Smith played in the Masters in 2004. His playing partner was Bob Estes and another Pennsylvania native, some guy named Arnold Palmer.
It happened to be the last appearance in the Masters for Palmer, one of the golf’s most celebrated and decorated champions, and the crowds following the threesome around the Augusta National Course were large, loud and intimidating.
“How do you top that? It’s your first (Masters’ appearance), and that’s his last,” said Smith. “The place was rocking. We’re coming down 18 in prime time. All these people were there. It was crazy, but it was a lot of fun.
“There were so many people, you couldn’t see anything but people. It was funny because I didn’t know; I thought that was the normal thing. I played three more times at Augusta, and it wasn’t even close to what was out there, Arnie’s Army.”
Smith, who grew up in Brookville, lives in Pittsburgh and is an investment adviser with Executive Wealth Counselors. He accepted an invitation for one of the 12 spots reserved for amateurs in the Mylan Classic, which takes place Thursday through Sunday over the 6,856-yard, par-72 Southpointe course.
Smith won a record-four titles in the Mid-Amateur Championship, four others in the West Penn Amateur and one in the Sunnehanna Amateur (2011) held in Westmont, just outside of Johnstown. The latter event attracted a young Tiger Woods to the field twice. He finished fifth in 1992 and 12th in 1993.
Smith secured a spot in the Masters through exemptions four times, but nothing beat the memories from the first one.
“I found out Tuesday night (I would be in Palmer’s grouping),” Smith said. “I thought they would pair him with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus because it was his last one. To see my name and Arnold Palmer’s name … I was blown away. I don’t know if I slept the next two days. We were off at close to 9 a.m. and then 1 o’clock on Friday.”
Palmer was 75 at the time, and his appearance marked his 50th consecutive Masters. He shot back-to-back 84s and missed the cut. Since 2007, Palmer has served as Honorary Starter for the Masters and is a honorary chairman of the Mylan Classic.
“We talked for a little bit, but honestly, it was so crazy and so loud, we couldn’t even hear,” Smith said. “The ovations walking down the fairway were so loud. There were a couple spots. We went over the brige on 12. We were able to talk a little bit. It was funny. I think he was reminiscing, telling stories about tournaments past. This guy hit it here, and this guy hit it there. He was great. He tried to do everything he could to keep me settled down. But he wasn’t going to have any luck with that. I was a nervous wreck.”
Smith shot a 6-over 78 in the first round and even par on Friday, missing the cut by two strokes.
“It was all too much. The course couldn’t be harder, and you’re playing with Palmer in his last one,” said Smith. “I was hoping I could just get it airborne, let alone play well.”
Smith is excited about playing in the Mylan Classic. This will mark his first appearance, though he has attended the tournament since it began four years ago.
“I watched this tournament from afar,” he said. “It was a lot of fun for me to see these guys I played a lot of amatuer golf with. I came out the last couple years and talked with them and had a chance to catch up.”
Smith, whose home course is Huntingdon Valley Golf Club, was an NCAA Division III All-America at Allegheny College. He said he was stunned when he received the invitation to play in the Mylan Classic.
“I had to check the phone number,” he said. “I was honored. That was great. I was really excited to get down here. My game is good, but it has to get a lot better for these guys. Hopefully, I can keep it going.”