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THE GREAT Pretender
Chris Lewis
November 11, 2002
Chris Smith claims to be a man of many interests, but he mainly just wants to have fun
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November 11, 2002

The Great Pretender

Chris Smith claims to be a man of many interests, but he mainly just wants to have fun

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A funny thing happened in June at the Buick Classic the moment Chris Smith, a 33-year-old journeyman, won for the first time on Tour. In a sport in which there are no teammates, and only your wife and accountant care if you win or lose, Smith stepped off the final green at Westchester Country Club and was engulfed in more dewy-eyed hugs than a sorority sister on the last day of senior year. "There were all these players waiting for him behind the green," says Smith's wife, Beth. " Jerry Kelly lifted Chris right off the ground, or at least he tried to. Bo Van Pelt was there—he's from Indiana, too—and so was that young guy, David Gossett." There were also embraces from stray Tour officials, caddies, tournament staff and even coldhearted media types. The warmest greeting, apart from Bern's, was from LPGA Hall of Famer and ABC commentator Judy Rankin, whom Smith regards as a second mom.

Smith's fine play throughout this breakout season—including a tie for fifth at last week's Southern Farm Bureau Classic—has propelled him to 43rd on the money-list, but if there were a stat measuring popularity, Smith would be the Tour's runaway leader. "He's the most outgoing and friendly person out here," says Tour veteran Skip Kendall, "and he treats everybody the same, so it's not just the players who are his friends."

During tournament weeks Smith is usually the hub of most off-course activities. "He's like a cruise-ship social director," says Kendall. "He's our Julie McCoy." Although Smith sometimes travels with Beth and their two children, Abigail, 9, and Cameron, 5, more than half of his evenings on the road are spent with the boys, most often at baseball games and rock concerts. His wingmen cut across the usual Tour class divisions, extending from players to equipment reps to caddies (including Matt Minister, Smith's own caddie and one of his best friends). Among the players, his core accomplices come from a group in their late 20s and early 30s who paid their dues with him on various B circuits—pros such as Kendall, Cameron Beckman, Joe Durant, J.J. Henry and Gary Nicklaus.

Part of what makes Smith so popular is his pleasantly perverse sense of humor. At the beginning of each season, he likes to fill in the SPECIAL INTERESTS section on the Tour's publicity questionnaire with false interests. Perusing the last few seasons' media guides, you find Smith claiming to be a gourmet cook and an accomplished painter, among other things. "A couple of years ago I listed karaoke singing," he says. "I got more attention from the Japanese reporters than Shigeki Maruyama did." At the British Open this year Smith had lunch with executives from McIlhenny, the company that makes Tabasco sauce. Says Smith, "One of the higher-ups sat down with me and said, 'I hear you're into antique-car restoration,' and he launched into a five-minute speech about his '67 Mustang. Finally I had to tell him I made it all up and that I don't know a thing about cars. I broke his heart."

This spring Smith's puckishness led to a memorable segment of Inside the PGA Tour that was dreamed up by the show's producer, Tim Lund, who considered Smith "the only guy on Tour who could pull it off." On the day of the shooting a dressed-down Smith showed up at a Florida course pretending to be a novice golfer. He was paired with two 50-ish gentlemen who exercised extreme patience but couldn't help rolling their eyes as Smith cold-topped tee shots, whiffed approaches, hit chips sideways and pleaded with them for help. "I'm open to any suggestions you guys can give me," Smith said at one point, in mock frustration. Shifting gears after some rudimentary tips from his playing partners, he then started to launch 320-yard drives, make effortless birdies and giggle as their jaws dropped. He tortured them for six holes before coming clean.

Smith has dragged his Tour brethren to baseball games across the country, though his heart will always be in St. Louis. He started keeping company with the Cardinals' players after being introduced to catcher Tom Pagnozzi in 1995.

When it comes to music, though, Smith's loyalties are less parochial. "I used to be kind of a metalhead," he says, adding that he still owns a T-shirt from Kiss's 1984-85 Animalize tour, "but I'm starting to mellow out. I've even started getting into country. I've got all the cowboy garb: the starched-up Wrangler jeans, the big belt buckle and the cream-colored straw Stetson, like the one George Strait wears." This year Smith has sampled bands of every stripe: the Goo Goo Dolls in Phoenix, Better than Ezra in New Orleans, Billy Joel and Elton John in Fort Lauderdale, Kenny Chesney in Dallas and John Mellencamp in Denver, where Smith stole away from the International with a pair of fuzzy-cheeked Ping employees.

Having used his Tour juice to score fourth-row tickets to see Mellencamp at Fiddler's Green, Smith sang along to every song for two hours, his right fist thrust in the air, index finger extended with the other four wrapped comfortably around a wide-mouth bottle of Coors. For Smith this is home cooking. He has seen Mellencamp seven times, the first back when the singer was still called John Cougar. Most Hoosiers feel the same way about Mellencamp, who's from Bloomington, that New Jerseyites feel about Bruce Springsteen. "This song is what you're all about, isn't it?" someone shouts at Smith as Mellencamp pounds through Small Town. "It's exactly what I'm all about," he shouts back.

Smith grew up in Rochester, Ind. (pop. 6,414), in a tight-knit, golf-crazy family. His mother, Rebecca, has played since she was a child; his father, Terry, a former fullback at Butler, picked up the game after college and quickly became an addict. Smith's family, proprietors of a limestone quarry, went so far as to build an 18-hole course, Rock Hollow, across their mined-out acreage, but the course didn't open until 1995, long after Smith had left town. He grew up playing a nine-hole track attached to Rochester's Elks Lodge. "When I started, my two brothers"—Terry Jr., 40, who manages the family quarry, and Todd, 39, the head pro at Rock Hollow—"were seven and six years older than me. They let me play so I could fill out the foursome with them and my dad." Smith's father never allowed his kids to play the forward tees. "I learned to hit it long trying to keep up." ( Smith's sister, Julie, 37, was subject to the same rules and was a member of the Rochester High boys' team that won the state championship in 1980.)

By age six Smith was playing in tournaments such as the Little Peoples' Championship in Quincy, Ill., then one of the few national junior events. Smith noticed that the mother of one of the participants was someone important. Smith and Rankin's son, Tuey, hit it off, and for several summers thereafter, Tuey boarded for a couple of weeks with the Smiths. Returning the favor, the Rankins would pick up Chris on their way to the LPGA stop in Wheeling, W.Va.

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