BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – This was in the backyard in California so many years ago, and little Stuart Smith was at it again. He was an only child living next to a country club, so how was he supposed to entertain himself?
Well, he’d design his own golf courses, stage his own tournaments. And the fix was in. A kid knows how, when he’s been hitting balls since he was three.
“I’d have plastic golf balls with all my favorite golf professionals’ initials on them. All the ones I really liked, they got the really firm balls, all the ones I really wasn’t fond of, they got the soft ones. My favorites would always win.”
So began a lifelong love affair with golf, which one day would temporarily sour. More about that in a minute. But four-plus decades after those backyard birdies, just look where Stuart Smith was Thursday: A club professional invited to the interview room for maybe the first time in his life after a five-under 66 gave him a share of the first round lead in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship.
“Wow, this is cool,” he said, walking in. “I thought it’d be smaller.”
How’d be end up there? How does the director of golf at Reno’s Somersett Country Club tee off at 7:40 a.m. and by noon is looking at a 64, until a double-bogey on No. 18?
“You never know what happens in this game,” Smith said. “To see my name on the board out there -- it’s not like I’m blind to the leaderboard -- that was cool.
“All my members (eight made the trip to be his on-site fan club) are taking pictures, and I know at home all my members are pulling up that screen. I tell them to go to the middle (of the list of leaders) and then look down, so it probably took them awhile to find my name today.”
No, this time he was at the top -- about 59 spots higher than he’s ever finished in this tournament.
“I would say ice cream tastes better on Saturday, because that means you made the cut, but ice cream is going to taste good today.”
OK, it’s only the first round, and he ended up in a gaggle at 66 with Scott McCarron, Tim Petrovic, Wes Short Jr., (who had two of the round's five eagles) Barry Lane and Peter Lonard -- the first time in the 79-year history of this tournament there was a six-way tie after the first round. But we’re talking about five guys who won nearly a combined $44 million on the regular PGA or European tours, not the club pro from Nevada who started four PGA Tour events in his life and never made a cut.
“I think it’s good for everybody to see something like that,” said Petrovic, who grew up a pitcher in Connecticut and claims he can still throw a knuckleball. “There was a little bit of a buzz. We were talking about it and looking at the board before we teed off. We looked up, we didn’t know who the player was.”
As they say, lots of golf left to play. What’s a guy on the leaderboard supposed to think on Thursday, anyway? As Chris Williams said after a 67 left him a shot back, “I’m just thinking about lunch.”
This was a day to savor the surroundings as much as the scores – even with 44 golfers in the 60s. Shots, not years. There were clear skies, beautiful weather, a scenic course, wandering its way along Lake Michigan. And we mean wandering. How many places can you name where the gallery members hop on a trolley between holes? Next stop, No. 7.
About that view from the hill on No. 7. Hard to beat. In a 360-degree turn on Thursday, you could see . . . the terns over Lake Michigan . . . David Toms on the elevated No. 8 driving into the valley of the fairway, with downtown St. Joseph off in the distance . . . Jeff Maggert standing on the No. 7 tee back in the wetlands, with red-winged blackbirds scattering about . . . the geese from a pond watching Jesper Parnevik in the fairway sizing up his second shot (ornithologists must love this tournament) . . . and finally, Stuart Smith roll in a 12-foot birdie putt on the green.
That would be the first of five birdies in a row for Smith, by the way. “I don’t remember the last time I did that,” he said. “I know I’ve done it.”
Maybe when he shot a 64 at Bel Air back in his UCLA days, when some of his Bruin teammates were named Corey Pavin, Steve Pate, Duffy Waldorf and Tom Pernice Jr. All those guys are chasing him now at Harbor Shores.
About the man they’re chasing.
He spent a good chunk of his young adult life trying to get his PGA Tour card, made it to the finals of qualifying school four times, but never quite could break through.
“I didn’t have the patience,” he said. “I wanted it too fast. I wanted to hit it longer, farther, higher, straighter, make every putt, and I didn’t have the best attitude maybe at that time, so I wasn’t mentally strong, and eventually I just combusted, probably about 1992.”
He turned away from the sport, but finally came back as a club pro. The game was different. He was different. He loved playing again, loved teaching, loved competing occasionally, but not in the supercharged way as before.
“I tried this life for a long time, and I guess my goal now is to enjoy it,” he said. “I had an exemption into the finals at the Champions Q School last year, and I didn’t go. It’s not me anymore.”
Not that there aren’t memories he cherishes from his playing years. His first PGA Tour tournament at the AT&T at Pebble Beach, when his father carried his bag. “That was really, really special, especially now that he’s gone,” Smith said Thursday, with a voice far more wobbly than his iron play. Next week will be the 10th anniversary of his father’s death. “I thought about my dad really vividly one time out there today, and it brought a tear to my eye.”
There was also the 2013 PGA Championship, when his oldest son caddied. And the tournament in South Africa where he met his future wife. They’ll celebrate their 25th anniversary in September.
Thursday will now rank way up there, too – when the 56-year-old club pro proved he belonged with the big boys.
“I play practice rounds with these guys, and I hit it the same. I don’t hit it as consistent maybe, but I hit it identical to these guys. So maybe I’m finally starting to believe that, hey, I’m over the mental part of it, now I can just go play my game.
“I hope it doesn’t bite me tomorrow.”
That’s the thing about this game. There’s almost always tomorrow. Back in Reno, they’ll all be watching their director of golf. Here at Harbor Shores, they know who he is now.