COLUMBIA — Matt NeSmith woke up on the morning of June 22 feeling ill. His roommate at the Northeast Amateur golf tournament in Rumford, R.I., had come down with the flu, and now NeSmith had it, at the worst possible time.
NeSmith, 19, played fairly well during the prestigious tournament’s first three days. He entered the final day, June 22, at 5-over par. He wasn’t going to win the event, since he was 11 shots off the lead, but he could certainly finish respectably.
His body would not let him do it comfortably. His roommate withdrew because of the flu, but NeSmith fought through his illness while shooting 5-over in the final round to finish tied for 35th in the 52-player tournament.
“I threw up after my round and just felt completely horrible my whole round,” he said. “It was hard to kind of really focus on what I needed to do when I just felt terrible. I was just kind of worried about not getting sick in public.”
NeSmith, who just finished his freshman year at South Carolina, has heard countless times from Gamecocks coach Bill McDonald that he must get tougher, and handle the type of adversity that he will one day encounter as a professional golfer. While McDonald knows NeSmith’s 10-over result at the Northeast Amateur wasn’t ideal, he liked what he saw on the final day.
“I guess he’s pretty tough,” McDonald said.
McDonald coaches NeSmith full-time, and is working with him in Columbia during this ambitious summer for NeSmith, one of America’s most promising amateurs. He is playing in some of the best amateur events: the Players Amateur in Okatie starting Monday; the Porter Cup in Lewiston, N.Y., on July 23-27; and the Western Amateur in Roland, Ark., on July 29-Aug. 4.
His two biggest goals: qualify for the United States Amateur (the nation’s top non-pro tournament) on Aug. 12-18, and get picked to play in the Walker Cup (essentially the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup) on Sept. 6-8.
A selection committee determines who makes America’s Walker Cup team. NeSmith will have full control over whether he makes the U.S. Amateur when he plays in a sectional qualifier July 16-17 at Columbia Country Club in Blythewood.
“I absolutely feel like I can get in (the U.S. Amateur),” NeSmith said.
His confidence comes from thousands of swings since he was six years old. NeSmith grew up in North Augusta, and his father, Darren, caddied part-time at Augusta National, carrying bags for celebrities like Ray Romano, Kevin James and Craig T. Nelson. Every Sunday, NeSmith’s family gathered at his grandmother’s house for dinner. He’d listen to his dad and cousin Wesley Carter, who played golf at the College of Charleston, talk about the game. NeSmith was hooked.
By the time NeSmith was 13 or 14, “I started to notice that I was a little bit better than everyone else,” he said. College coaches noticed, too. McDonald’s then-assistant, Michael Burcin, called him from the state junior championship one year and said, “You’re not going to believe this kid I’m watching. He looks like a 16- or 17-year-old, and he’s going into eighth grade.”
Plenty of eighth-graders stand out by hitting drives farther than their competitors, but it was the refinement in NeSmith’s game that wowed McDonald as he shadowed NeSmith at tournaments.
“There wasn’t a noticeable flaw in his game at a very early age,” McDonald said.
NeSmith came to USC with credentials to match his skills. Last year, he was named the American Junior Golf Association’s Player of the Year — an award previously bestowed upon Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Could NeSmith eventually become the next prominent young PGA Tour player from the Palmetto State, joining Lucas Glover and Dustin Johnson?
Collegiate success did not happen immediately for NeSmith, partly because he was worn down from last summer’s grind, McDonald said. NeSmith automatically qualified for last year’s U.S. Amateur, but opted to skip to make his PGA Tour debut, at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., where he missed the cut by two strokes. Last fall at USC, NeSmith finished second, second, third and fifth on USC’s team in four events.
“He’s been a little bit better this spring and the early part of the summer at recognizing when he’s run down,” McDonald said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for him. He’s better at it, but a lot of times he doesn’t realize he’s running himself down until it’s too late, and then he’s exhausted.”
This spring, NeSmith closed strong and was USC’s top scorer five times, all in the final six tournaments. McDonald loved how he carried himself during the Hootie at Bulls Bay event in late March. Winds gusted at 40 mph, and while McDonald could barely keep himself upright on the course, NeSmith laughed his way through his round and finished tied for seventh.
“This is so much fun trying to figure this out,” he told McDonald, amid the brutal conditions.
NeSmith tied for 38th at the NCAA championships, and his season stroke average (for the fall and spring) was 72.64 — best on the team, and second-best ever by a USC freshman. In the spring, he averaged 71.79, compared to 74.33 in the fall.
A week after finishing his first college season, NeSmith opened June by playing in his second PGA event, in Memphis, Tenn., where he missed the cut by eight strokes. But he was able to absorb more than he did in Greensboro. He spent some time talking about tour life with his playing partners, veterans Jeff Maggert and Billy Mayfair, who encouraged him to stay in school and develop his game as long as he could — a sentiment echoed by other players with whom NeSmith spoke.
“It’s an interesting perspective, that all of them had that take on it,” NeSmith said.
Despite NeSmith jumping right into his summer schedule, McDonald doesn’t think he is pushing himself too hard. NeSmith’s results alone don’t matter as much to McDonald as bigger-picture progress, such as consistent ball flight. But NeSmith has his mind set on winning a tournament, something he hasn’t done since last summer, though he did have seven top-10 finishes this season with the Gamecocks — the second-most in school history.
PGA Tour rules allow him to turn pro at any time, but he said he certainly won’t do it before next season. Even Webb Simpson, who won last year’s U.S. Open as a 26-year-old, stayed all four years at Wake Forest before turning pro in 2008.
Before NeSmith can take on the PGA Tour, he must become comfortable with his changing body. He spent his freshman season bulking up in the weight room, which added 10 yards to his shots, but also “made my misses a lot bigger,” he said. He is still working on reining in his newfound power.
McDonald knows what this transition is like. He was a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech and finished second in the 1988 NCAA championships. He grinded his way through six years as a touring pro, in South Africa and Canada, with spot appearances on the PGA Tour.
NeSmith isn’t ready yet to enter pro golf’s unforgiving world. But between now and summer’s end, he can offer a glimpse of just how close he is.
“It’s hard to say he’s a ‘can’t miss,’ because it’s a tough game,” McDonald said. “But he’s got as many qualities as anybody that I’ve seen.”
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