Nathan Smith is a 38-year-old financier from Pittsburgh yet he has played in as many Masters as Ryder Cup captains Paul McGinley, Bernard Gallacher and Mark James put together.
Four Mid-Amateur titles have stamped Smith’s ticket to Augusta National and it was on his first visit, in 2004, that he got the golden ticket – a Thursday-Friday three ball with fellow ‘Burgher Arnold Palmer, in his 50th and final Masters.
This year at Augusta, for the first time since 1955, we won’t have the pleasure of Palmer’s company, warm smile and trademark thumbs up.
We spoke to Smith to relive his incredible week with the great man 13 years ago.
“We also had a practice round with Fred Ridley of the USGA on the Tuesday and we all had lunch together in the champions’ locker room and then the pairings came out and I couldn’t believe it.
I figured Arnold would be with Jack and Gary. I have no idea why we (Bob Estes made up the three) were put together.”
“I played with Phil Mickelson in the Par 3 which maybe helped me ahead of playing with Palmer. On the 1st tee Byron Nelson is sitting there with his wife, there’s Jack, Freddie Couples, all the Augusta royalty.
I could barely feel the club. I skulled the heck out of the ball. It didn’t get above the pin but somehow it checks up 22 inches from the pin. Everyone goes wild. Phil winked at me and said ‘sounded solid’ – he knew what had happened.
He ended up winning so that was really cool. I played there three times after 2004 and Phil and I would go the week before.
“I couldn’t believe how there were so many people following us. It was no different to him but it seemed to be 20-30 deep everywhere. He was everybody’s hero. He loved it. He loved being Arnold Palmer, he loved every second of it.
Everybody could feel the love and he definitely could. Nobody had a bad word to say about him.
“There was a great moment at the 6th when he almost holed out and Jack was on 16. It is a little amphitheatre down there. Jack did something and Arnold stuffed one in there, and he tipped his hat to Jack and the crowd went wild.
The ovation walking from the 11th green to the 12th tee was something else, just incredible. He was nearly 75 but was still hitting it well. He hit an unbelievable shot into 12, and you could spot the genius of why he had won there four times.
“On the Friday we had a late tee time to fit in with primetime TV so there were cameras everywhere. It felt like a big football game on every hole and I was still trying to make the cut. I had a 78 on day one but was two under coming to the last and needed a par. I was in the front bunker and you could see Jim Nantz in the CBS tower behind the green.
I had a 30-yard bunker shot and this ball had got ‘home run’ written all over it – all I could think was how I was going to take out the TV tower. Of course I chunked it out 30 feet short and three-putted.
“Afterwards he said ‘I’m sorry this happened. You played great. That has happened to me before.’ I didn’t know what that meant then but years later I realised. (In 1961 Palmer doubled the last to lose by a shot to Gary Player).
He couldn’t have been a classier person, he was a real man’s man. I saw Arnold last summer at Latrobe and he does that thing where he grabs your hand, and he has these big, strong hands and he doesn’t let go and says ‘you’re my guy’.
I’m a nobody but he would tell me that he had seen me play – nobody at that level would ever do that.”