Golf: Detroit Lakes' Kate Smith pays it forward with free clinic; Reflects on earning Epson Tour status
Kate Smith returned to Detroit Lakes to host a free golf clinic at Lakeview Golf Course. She spoke with the Detroit Lakes Tribune about golfing at the high school, college and professional levels and her selection as one of the Star Tribune's 50 most influential girls high school athletes from Minnesota in its Title IX celebration.
DETROIT LAKES – Before the five state championships, Big Ten championship and earning her first tour card, Detroit Lakes’ Kate Smith remembers what it was like to watch a professional up close in person. Last Tuesday, she decided to pay it forward.
Smith hosted a free clinic at Lakeview Golf Club during her week-long break from the Epson Tour. In front of a crowd of people, Smith hit golf balls while discussing the ins and outs of her game while answering audience questions.
“I always felt like the kids don’t get a chance to watch me hit and where I can be interactive with them,” Smith said. “I hit some balls and bring them through some of my philosophies about what I do to get better and how I prepare for competitions. We brought a bunch of KLN products to give out. My thought behind it was to say thank you to all of my sponsors and the people that support me in this community.”
Smith received full status on the Epson Tour, formerly the LPGA Futures Tour, in the spring of 2022. It’s the developmental league for the LPGA, the nation’s highest level for professional women’s golf.
Smith graduated from Detroit Lakes in 2016 with five individual Class 2A state championships under her belt. She also led the Lakers to four team state titles from 2012-2016. During her senior year, Smith was named Minnesota’s Ms. Golf.
After high school, Smith took her talents and dozens of state-wide accolades to the University of Nebraska, where she became one of the greatest golfers in school history.
In her senior season in 2021, Smith became the first golfer in program history to win the individual Big Ten championship and the first individual conference champion since Sarah Sasse won the Big 12 title in 2003. She helped lead the Cornhuskers to a second-place finish in the Big Ten championships.
Following her senior year, Smith started to receive national recognition. She was named to the Golfweek All-American third team and was a WGCA All-American honorable mention. She was also named to the U.S. Palmer Cup and the Big Ten All-Championship team.
Turning golf into a job
Smith learned that she could handle the pressure of winning at a high level when she rattled off five consecutive state championships. That’s when she set her sights on playing professionally.
“Going through the state championships, I was like, ‘Woah, this is pretty cool. I can handle this,’” Smith said. “I always told myself that it has to be fun. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s been more and more fun every year. I think that’s why I bet on myself. I may not be the best golfer right now on the tour I’m on, but I love it, and I continue to love it. I hope that carries me through and gets me to keep going. I’m really grateful to get to do it as a job.”
When Smith received her Epson Tour card, she called it a “surreal moment.”
“Not a lot of people know what the Epson Tour is. For me, it’s a huge deal,” Smith said. “My goal this year was to get full status on that tour. It’s really cool being there. The talent is incredible. To compete against that every week is a lot of fun.”
Through 11 events, Smith is in 80th place out of 177 competitors. Her best finish Came on Apr. 21 at the Copper Rock Championship in Hurricane, UT, where she tied for 17th place.
“Top 10 (on the Epson Tour) guarantees a card on the LPGA Tour. Top 30 also has a pretty good shot at getting LPGA cards, too,” Smith said. “I’m hoping I land up there on the money list at the end of the year. I have to do some work, but I’m hoping I’ll learn from all of my mistakes and start playing a lot better. There’s a lot of growing pains.”
Smith’s margin for error gets smaller every time her career takes a step forward. In her pursuit of reaching the LPGA, she’s learning how to grow physically and mentally.
“If you shot +2 in college over three days, you’d be in the top 10. Now, you’re missing the cut, and you don’t catch a check,” Smith said. “It’s really hard, and it’s different. You can be in contention and then make a bogey or a double bogey, and then you’re out. The margins are really small, but it pushes you to make less mistakes.”
Going at it solo
In high school and college, Smith has played on successful golf teams. One of her most significant adjustments to professional golf was adjusting to a solo game.
“Traveling on your own is so different, and I respect every girl doing it,” Smith said. “It’s a lonely, tough road, but it’s really rewarding. The places they take us to aren’t always nice. You just have to get through it.”
Smith is known for her individual success. However, she attributes her achievements to a robust support system. Not only is her family such a crucial part of her upbringing, but playing on successful teams in high school and college helped mold her competitive drive.
“A lot of people on tour talk about having a team, and that means having good people in your life that support you no matter what your score is,” Smith said. “Nothing totally replaces something like a good high school or college team. I’ve had really good teammates over the years and good coaches. I think that makes it an even harder transition. You have to learn to be your own best friend. That can be really tough as an athlete because you’re taught to be really hard on yourself.”
An opportunity to play professionally comes around for few athletes, especially a golfer from northern Minnesota.
“When I look at my peers, this is just not the typical storyline,” Smith said of her road to the Epson Tour. “Girls come from big cities with private courses. They play at huge academies. That’s not me. There have been so many successful golfers that have come from (Detroit Lakes). I think it came from a lot of hard work and a lot of people helping.”
Leaving her mark on Minnesota history
This year is the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive government funding. It’s given millions of athletes around the country a chance to compete in sports at the youth level.
In celebration of Title IX’s half-century mark, the Star Tribune listed the 50 most memorable girls to have played high school sports in Minnesota . Smith joined Hopkins Eisenhower’s Jody Rosenthal as one of two golfers on the list.
“That was incredibly cool,” Smith said. “The athletes that are on that list, especially the winter sports, were crazy good. It’s crazy the kind of athletes that have come out of Minnesota. I’m glad I could be part of that group. It’s really nice to be able to think about what I’ve done in Minnesota. It’s been such a good sports community to compete in. The people on the golf courses are so fun to be around, and I miss it a lot.”
Despite getting the chance to travel across the country to play professional golf, Smith chooses to keep her ties to Detroit Lakes strong.
“Watching everybody grow up has been really nice,” Smith said. “The girls on the high school team right now, I’ve seen them when I’ve taught in clinics. I’ve seen them turn into role models for the girls that will follow them. I think that’s why there’s so much success (in Detroit Lakes). People continue to step up and help the people younger than them. If I can help set that pace, then that’s the best part about coming back.”
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on Kate Smith. The second part will be in the July 10, 2022, issue of the Detroit Lakes Tribune. It will feature a Q&A about other aspects of Smith’s professional career, golf in Detroit Lakes and the purpose of hosting clinics.