Wednesday's par-3 contest was a blur. Byron Nelson was stationed by the 1st tee. Ridley and Phil Mickelson joined Smith, and while they were waiting to begin, Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus and Mike Weir walked up. When the green cleared, Mickelson told Smith, a little rattled by his famous company, to go ahead and hit. He skulled a nine-iron right at the pin. "Somebody said, 'Wow, what a knockdown shot!'" says Smith. "Oh, my gosh, I skulled it so bad, but it somehow checked up 22 inches from the pin and the place went crazy. Phil gave me a wink and said, 'Sounded solid.' I didn't fool him."
Smith's closest-to-the-pin held up, so he went home with some Masters crystal, now proudly displayed on a shelf above the television at his father's house. When a pipe burst while Larry and his wife, Vicky, were wintering in Myrtle Beach, he admitted that his first thought was, Is the Masters crystal O.K.? "I hope he leaves it here forever," Larry says, "but I try not to bring it up much."
In his first official Masters round Smith shot a six-over 78, but on Friday he was two under through 17 holes and needed a par at the 18th to make the cut. He hit a poor drive left and, noticing what looked like 20,000 people congregating around the green to say goodbye to Palmer, dumped his approach into the front bunker. He ran a 20-foot par putt past the hole, then, wanting to get out of Palmer's way, rushed the comebacker and made double bogey. Palmer putted out and made a tearful exit to a long ovation.
"I remember looking up from the front bunker and seeing the CBS guys in the tower and thinking, If I skull this I might kill Jim Nantz," Smith says. "I'm in [the scoring tent] trying to sign the scorecard, and I look up and there's a camera—we're on national TV. I was keeping Palmer's card. I've never felt so much pressure signing a scorecard."
Smith was young then (25) and considering a pro career. A few weeks later, though, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder during a round, had surgery and didn't swing a club for the rest of the year. He finished his MBA at Clarion, and it was another two years, he says, before he was fully recovered. "If I ever had a window for pro golf," says Smith, who has never been a long hitter, "that probably closed it."
He married Nicole Bianco, his high school sweetheart, on Labor Day weekend in 2005 and has understanding business associates, who allow him to play in enough summer tournaments to stay sharp. "I'm really happy where my life is—everything is about perfect," says Smith, who starred on last year's victorious Walker Cup team and was a member of the three-man Pennsylvania side that won the USGA State Team Championship.
"Nathan is spectacularly unspectacular," says Knapp, who dominated western Pennsylvania amateur golf in the '90s the way Smith did in the '00s. "I'd put his short game against almost anybody's. It's Tour quality. Same for his putting. Nathan doesn't miss a putt he needs to make. He's a killer on the course. All great players are."
This trip to the Masters means something different from the one in '04. "I played with Arnold Palmer and had my dad on the bag," Smith says. "It doesn't get any better than that." Maybe it does. Smith has overcome that shoulder injury, is playing the best golf of his life and is taking Larry back to Augusta. Instead of a Masters Sunday spent in front of a high-definition TV with a pile of chocolate-covered pretzels—a family tradition—Smith will savor the week surrounded by golf's greatest players and best galleries, with Dad back on the bag.
"It was an emotional moment the first time we drove up Magnolia Lane," Larry says, admitting that he and Nathan were teary-eyed. "It was just as emotional when we left on Sunday because I never thought we'd be back. To do it again, together, is so special. It's a dream come true, twice."
Now on GOLF.com