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Earlier this month, as Pittsburgh basked in the first springlike temperatures of the year, Nathan Smith started getting nervous. The sudden warm spell meant that the rapidly receding snowpack would soon reveal Smith's secret: He had kept his golf game sharp during an uglier-than-usual winter by driving to Wildwood Golf Club, where he's a member, shoveling off a patch of turf on the practice range and hitting balls into the white stuff. "There were balls everywhere under the snow," Smith says.
Sean Knapp, the best man in Smith's wedding and a storied figure in Pittsburgh amateur golf, laughs when he hears of Smith's dilemma. "Yeah, and it's probably not just a couple of dozen [balls]. It's probably a couple thousand."
The Masters is around the corner, and Smith, a 31-year-old financial representative and the 20th-ranked amateur in the world, is in the field by virtue of winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur last October. Living in Pittsburgh's North Hills area, where the snowfall reached near-record levels, isn't conducive to preparing for the Masters. But then neither is having a full-time job or being an amateur.
As for shoveling off a place to practice, Smith says, "I doubt Phil Mickelson has to do that." Still, Smith is looking ahead to his second Masters appearance with an odd mix of anticipation and panic.
"There are times when I think I have everything under control, and then I see a commercial on ESPN—'The Masters, coming in April ...'—and it's like, Uh-oh, I'd better go hit some balls or something," Smith says. "It's exciting and also a little surreal."
It's not as if Smith was completely snowbound this winter. He played in amateur events in Argentina and Sea Island, Ga., and found time for three trips to Augusta, where his usual routine was to drive down on Friday night, play 18 holes on Saturday and a quick 18 on Sunday before making the trek home. You talk about long drives. Smith's were 10 hours, 600 miles one way.
Smith's Masters memories are already piled higher than snowdrifts. He played in the 2004 Masters after winning the '03 U.S. Mid-Am, getting an unexpected pairing with another 'Burgher—Latrobe's Arnold Palmer, who was playing in his 50th and final Masters. Smith also played a practice round with Palmer before he found out that they would be paired for the tournament. Smith remembers warming up on the range when he heard an eruption of cheers. "I knew somebody big must be coming," he says. It was Palmer. USGA president Fred Ridley joined them for 18, then Smith and Ridley joined Palmer for lunch upstairs in the champions' locker room, a fortress of solitude reserved for Masters winners and their guests.
Then there was the moment when Larry Smith, Nathan's father and his caddie for the week (mainly because Smith can't find anyone who works for less, Dad likes to say) brazenly plopped Nathan's bag down next to Tiger Woods's on the practice range. "I wanted to see Tiger up close," says Larry, a retired fifth-grade teacher. "That was the best chance I was ever going to get."
Nathan was apoplectic. "I can't believe my dad had the stones to do that," he says. "So now I'm hitting balls with Tiger, and I'm rope-hooking this three-iron out there maybe 205 yards, swinging as hard as I can to impress him. Meanwhile, Tiger hits this six-iron in the air, way high, and it's floating, floating, floating—and carrying about 225. Vijay Singh is on the range swinging this big weighted club. Gary Player is holding court. It was all too much."
Even registering at the tournament office was memorable. "The first question when you check in at an amateur tournament is usually, 'Will you be attending the barbecue?'" Smith says. "The first question when I checked in at the Masters was, 'Who should we contact if a death threat is made against you?' A death threat? I gave them my teacher's name, Don Sargent. I didn't want my parents involved because even if there was a death threat, I was still playing."