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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Big-league greens beckon after 19 years
The Senior U.S. Open marks the first PGA event since 1986 for Clearwater native Jim Smith.
By RODNEY PAGE
Published July 28, 2005
The office's wall unit air conditioner is broken. The miniature golf course needs to be swept. The snack shack is running low on sodas and ice cream. The driving range netting needs some repair, victim of another strong summer storm.
These are some of the daily worries for Jim Smith, owner of Missing Links Driving Range, Batting Cage and miniature golf course in Largo. Today, however, he isn't worried about fixing fences or re-ordering colored golf balls. Smith, 55, is only worried about hitting the fairways and greens of NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, site of the Senior U.S. Open.
Smith earned his way into the field of 156 through a qualifier July 18 at Victoria Hills Country Club in DeLand. He shot 1-under 71, which tied for third in a 116-man field. Only the top three advance to the Open, so Smith had to play a playoff, winning with a par on the first hole.
"For me, I guess lightning strikes every 19 years," Smith said.
That is how long it has been since Smith played his first, and only, PGA event. He qualified for the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y. It was a tournament Smith had tried to qualify for since graduating from the University of Florida in 1973.
"I had tried to qualify for the U.S. Open since back in college," Smith said. "It's been forever. I tried for a long time and missed by a couple of shots sometimes. I knew it was possible."
Smith shot an opening-round 86 at Shinnecock Hills and followed with a 78 to miss the cut. He would not play in another PGA event, until today.
"I played horribly," Smith said of his U.S. Open experience. "It was an overwhelming time at that point. I was a fish out of water."
Smith was born and raised in Clearwater. He was a star on Clearwater High School's state championship golf team in 1968. He went on to St. Petersburg Junior College, where the team won a national championship in 1971. Smith was the low individual at the national tournament.
At Florida, Smith played No. 4 behind Andy North, Andy Bean and Gary Koch, who all had long careers on the PGA Tour. Smith, however, couldn't break through.
"It's just the circumstance. Sometimes it's just luck," Smith said. "(North) and I were roommates at Florida, and we're lying there one night after flying back from a (U.S. Open) qualifying tournament and Andy says, "Ya know, Jim, I'm going to win the U.S. Open one day,' " Smith said. "I'm thinking, "Yeah, right. I'm going to win, too, Andy.' He told me he was going to win, and he ends up winning two.
"I think that's what it is about those elite guys. They have that arrogance, that confidence. It's their heart. It's 75 percent mental out there. That separates the men from the boys. Maybe I didn't have enough of that."
Smith had a setback just after graduation that put his golf game on hold. His father died suddenly, and he inherited the family business, Hawkins Construction. He worked there for 10 years. But the golf bug bit again in 1984, when Smith left to manage a friend's golf course in Jacksonville.
He started playing regularly again, which got him ready for the U.S. Open qualifying tournaments. In 1987, after his humbling Open experience, Smith returned to Clearwater and opened the driving range.
"It's something I always wanted to do," Smith said.
Smith settled back into family life. He is still married to his high school sweetheart, Kandy, and has two children, Stephanie, 30, and Kasey, 28.
He is business partners with high school teammate Jim Barber. Smith and Barber each give private lessons at the driving range. Barber, who spent seven years on the PGA Tour, will caddy for Smith this week.
Qualifying for the Senior U.S. Open wasn't a complete fluke. Smith has had some success as a senior golfer. He won the North Florida Open tournament in 2000 and 2002. He was the 2001 Senior Match Play champion. In 2004 Smith was the North Florida section senior player of the year.
Smith said he learned some lessons from his first U.S. Open experience. He expects to be more in control of his emotions this time around. And he won't have a large family following him in the gallery.
"We did this whole full-blown family thing the first time and it was kind of distracting," Smith said. "This time it's Jimmy and me. Let's see if that makes a difference."