The week prior to The Masters golf tournament, the spotlight fell on Kate Smith at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament as she leaped over the field on day one to hold a rain-shortened first round four-stroke lead.
Every golfer has experienced a round where things were going spectacular, only to have Mother Nature step in and spoil the fun. That’s what happened to Smith as she was forced to wait overnight to finish her first round before ending her tournament late in the day after her second round in a five-woman playoff to make the cut for the final round.
“Murphy’s Law, right?” Smith said.
As the rain came down and play was halted, Smith and her caddy Karter Smith, her brother, had a humorous cart ride back to the clubhouse.
“I got in the cart with my brother and I said, ‘don’t take this the wrong way like I’m self-deprecating myself or anything, but this feels like my Caddyshack moment, ya know?’”
One of the famous scenes in the movie Caddyshack is the best round of The Bishop’s (Henry Wilcoxon) life along with his caddy Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) in a torrential downpour.
“Luckily, I didn’t get struck by lightning but it felt like it,” said Smith.
While awaiting their ride to the hotel, the Smiths were inundated by the media wanting to speak with the surprise first round leader.
“There were eight or nine people circled around this one camera,” said Smith. “People I know and people I’ve watched on TV. It was a little surreal.”
There were a lot of surreal moments, like sharing an elevator with the No. 1 amateur player in the world Rose Zhang.
“A girl got in and out and I told Karter, that was Rose, she’s number one in the world,” said Smith. “There is no asterisk in this tournament. This is the field.”
Smith was lauded by the media and the tournament’s Twitter feed for her unwavering commitment to be relaxed, not put pressure on herself, and just enjoy the moment, despite being in the spotlight.
Back at the hotel, she continued to try to remain calm.
“I struggled to sleep but I felt really calm most of the week,” she said. “The emotions kind of flooded after because I did a pretty good job of staying in the moment to some extent.”
That moment led to a difficult day two where only three players shot below par. Smith wound up in a five-way tie and the playoff.
“Unfortunately, it’s the unconscious feelings,” she said. “I felt good over the ball and good over a lot of stuff that second day, but your hands, they just don’t do what you want them to do because of those other emotions that are lying beneath.”
Those emotions peaked at the tee box of the first, and what would be the only, playoff hole. Smith defused some of it with more shared humor with Karter.
“I looked at Karter on the first tee of the playoff and I said, ‘is this worse than a playoff at Pine to Palm?’ Karter has been in that playoff late night and he said, ‘yeah, I think it’s a little bit worse and people don’t have drinks in their hands. It’s a little more tense.’”
Picking Karter to be on the bag was easy after some thought and assurances, as the two have been separated, Karter living in Iowa and Kate in Nebraska.
“It was not as easy as you would have thought,” said Smith. “Karter and I just haven’t caddied for each other in a few years.”
The decision turned out to be the right one.
“It was the best,” said Smith. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard of a job it is on the caddies. There aren’t range finders, so your caddy has to give you the right yardage every single time. He worked really hard for me all week to make sure I was prepared and he was actually really calm the whole time. He did awesome and I was just happy to share the moment with him.”
Smith and three other golfers had birdie putts on the playoff green. Smith’s was the longest, but her putt of perfect pace that sat mere inches from the cup was the second best putt of the hole.
Maja Stark, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, drained her birdie putt eliminating all four golfers and claiming the last qualifying spot.
While Smith’s tournament had ended, she joined the entire field for a practice round at Augusta National Friday, three days before the beginning of Masters week.
“I’ve been in a lot of different tournaments but nothing compared to this,” she said.
The first two days of the Women’s Amateur were played at Champions Retreat Golf Club, with the final round hosted by Augusta National.
“I was really surprised coming to the first course we played,” said Smith. “This is one of the best courses I’ve ever played in my life and this isn’t even Augusta. I set my expectations so high and it exceeded it. Everything is immaculate, how everything is cut, the bunkers, the greens, the flowers, how people treat you. It was really just awe-inspiring.”
The tournament capped a crazy COVID calendar year for the Nebraska senior. At this time in 2020, Smith did not know if she was going to compete collegiately, or even as an amateur, again.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” she said. “This whole year has been hard on so many people, but for me, it was kind of like my second chance at an amateur career I didn’t really have.”
Smith is back in Nebraska ready to finish up her super senior season with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska has one regular season tournament left, the Indiana Spring Invitational in Bloomington April 17-18.
After that, it’s the Big 10 Championships in Ohio and the NCAA regional and national championship tournaments. Unlike last year, Smith has the opportunity to savor her final moments as an amateur and college golfer.
“It’s a lot different this year,” she said. “I’m a lot more focused on spending time with my teammates. It was hard last year. I was trying to soak up every single thing and obviously, it got cut off. In the last year, I realized that golf will always be with me but the time I’m spending with my teammates and coaches is what I want to appreciate this last month.”
One of, if not her final amateur event, will be at a U.S. Open qualifier this spring on May 3.
“My plan is I’ll turn professional just after the postseason,” she said.
The NCAA championships will be held the last week of May.
The decision to play golf professionally was not a difficult one. She has also gotten advice from Oxbow’s Amy Olson, a star on the LPGA tour.
“Amy has made it look pretty easy these past few years,” said Smith. “We get in touch every once in a while. She was super nice to meet with me over quarantine last year and share some thoughts. I appreciate her taking the time when the moments come. I just feel like I’ve been really fortunate in my career. I’m just getting consistently better every year and I’m enjoying it more and more. It was pretty much a no-brainer for me. As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”
Read more stories by Robert Williams here.