Nathan Smith can't wait to return to Augusta National next April. And Smith's latest U.S. Mid-Amateur victory might make Phil Mickelson feel pretty good about his Masters chances, too.
Smith built a big lead early on Friday and cruised to a 7-and-6 victory over Tim Spitz for his second title at the USGA event.
Smith, the 2003 champion, was 3 up after five holes and never let Spitz back in it over 30 holes at Cassique at The Kiawah Island Club.
Smith's victory earns him a likely invitation to the Masters, where he last appeared in 2004 following his first Mid-Am championship. That was an overwhelming adventure for Smith, who played with Mickelson in the tournament's par-3 event. He also had lunch with the golf star a couple of times during the week that ended with Mickelson slipping on the green jacket.
"That's just off the charts and then the guy goes out and wins his first major," said Smith, who missed the Masters cut after rounds of 78 and 72. "That's a dream."
Could it happen again? Well, Smith's done his part.
He began fashioning his own dream round early in the 36-hole final. He was 5-up after nine holes and eight ahead when the competitors broke for lunch. Smith didn't make a bogey until the 24th hole and closed things out six holes later when his sand wedge approach stuck inches from the cup.
Spitz conceded the championship when the two reached the green.
"He just kept piling on. That's what you're supposed to do," said Spitz, a former Furman golfer from Rochester, N.Y.
Smith, a 31-year-old investment adviser from Pittsburgh, was glad for the victory and the validation it brings. He was 4 up nine holes in the 2003 final when opponent Bryan Norton tore a calf muscle on a swing and had to withdraw.
"It was unfortunate" for Norton, Smith said. "But you really wish you could play it out. This means a lot."
A turning point on Friday came on the fifth hole when Spitz, already three down, struck a perfect tee shot on the par-3 that appeared to dive in and come back out of the cup. Not an ace, but an easy birdie to seize back some momentum, right?
Not after Smith followed with a 25-footer for a birdie of his own to halve the hole and keep Spitz on the ropes.
"I thought that was huge," Smith said. "When stuff like that happens, it's just meant to be."
Spitz was 15 feet from a birdie at No. 9 and Smith faced a third-shot from well below the elevated green. Smith's chip rolled to 3 feet for his par, while Spitz was short on his attempt.
Smith added to his advantage on the 7th, 8th and 11th holes. On the par-3 16th, Smith and Spitz had birdie putts of about 6 feet. While Smith made his, Spitz was off the mark to lose another hole.
Spitz didn't gain a win until the 24th hole, decreasing Smith's lead to 7-up. A hole later, Smith regained his margin with a winning two-putt par from about 30 feet.
"Whenever it looked like I might get a little momentum he stopped it," Spitz said.
Smith advanced to the finals off 1-up wins in his quarterfinal and semifinal matches. His fast start on Friday made certain he wouldn't need to go the distance this time.
"I was really solid this morning," Smith said. "There's such a fine line out here."
The Mid-Amateur championship, eligible to amateurs 25 and older, ended a stellar season for Smith. He was a member of the winning United States Walker Cup team and was a co-medalist here.
The victory makes Smith the event's fifth multiple winner. Jay Sigel, also from Pennsylvania, leads with three Mid-Amateur crowns, in 1983, 1985 and 1987.
Smith hasn't fully surrendered the idea of playing as a pro one day.
"Like anybody, you have days where you're out there, you're playing well and you start to think," he said. "Then you have other days where you're pretty comfortable.
"It just seems like the perfect fit."