As a native of western Pennsylvania, Nathan Smith understood the drawing power of fellow Pittsburgh area golfer Arnold Palmer. He felt it first-hand, however, in 2004.
Smith, then a 25-year-old amateur playing in the Masters for the first time, joined Palmer for his final two competitive rounds at Augusta National. He tensed at Palmer's first shot Thursday and final shot Friday and felt engulfed by the crowds that surrounded them for 36 holes.
"The galleries felt like I was playing in an SEC football game," Smith said.
How did a career amateur draw an inside-the-ropes view of Masters history? A favorable pairing from the Masters organizing committee, for one. But Smith earned that opportunity by winning what the USGA calls its purest amateur competition.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur, which begins a month from today at Saucon Valley Country Club, named its trophy after Bobby Jones, a founder of Augusta National and the Masters. In addition to possession of that trophy for a year, the Mid-Amateur champ receives what many call a once-in-a-lifetime perk: an invitation to the Masters.
For Smith, that perk actually has come four times. The four-time Mid-Amateur champ has played in more Masters than many professionals. The last time, in 2013, he stayed at a house with family and left the Crow's Nest beds in Augusta National's clubhouse to the other amateurs who qualified.
"The experience of playing in the Masters is priceless," Smith said. "I wish every amateur could have that experience."
The Masters began awarding the U.S. Mid-Amateur winner a tournament spot in 1989. Six amateurs, including champions of the British and Asian championships, earn spots in the annual opening major of the golf season.
For Mid-Amateur contestants, who have to be 25 or older, a chance to play in the Masters can be a defining career experience. Matt Mattare, a Central Catholic graduate who has qualified for the Mid-Amateur at Saucon Valley, said the incentive is inviting.
"When [the Mid-Amateur] was announced for Saucon Valley, it instantly became the biggest event of the year," said Mattare, whose father, Gene, is the club's general manager. "That the champ gets a ticket to the Masters just pushes it to another level. It's going to be an experience I'll always remember. Hopefully, we end it with a fairy tale."
For Smith, the fairy tale has come true four times. During one Masters appearance, Smith peeked over a railing to catch a glimpse of the annual champions dinner. He has hit memorable shots (and clunky ones) but has yet to make a cut.
"My first time playing I asked, 'Is this what it's like every year?' You've got to be kidding me," Smith said. "It was wild, absolutely wild."
Of the 264 players who will compete at the U.S. Mid-Amateur, most at one time had designs of turning pro. Smith, who has played for the U.S. Walker Cup team, competed as an amateur at the PGA Tour Qualifying School but never took the leap.
Instead, he plays a national schedule, which requires a flexible work schedule and a healthy financial commitment. When Smith needs winter practice, he visits his parents in Florida. He does all that out of a devotion to the game.
"Like a lot of these guys, if we were good enough, we'd be out there [on the PGA Tour]," Smith said. "When I tried Q School, I kind of got my hair blown back. When I won the Mid-Amateur at 25, I kind of fell in love with amateur golf. I'm a career amateur, and I love it."
Smith visited Saucon Valley last month for a 36-hole invitational that featured some of the area's top amateur golfers. He shot rounds of 68-71 (the 68 coming on the Old Course) to edge Mattare by two strokes.
Smith will return to Saucon Valley next month attempting to win his fifth U.S. Mid-Amateur since 2004. He said Saucon will provide two of the toughest championship courses he has played.
"You have to drive it well, position the ball on the green properly, just do everything well, really," Smith said. "You can't fall asleep out there. We're going to have a great champion."
OWEN McCALL MEMORIAL RETURNS TO GREEN POND: The 20th annual Owen McCall Memorial will be played Aug. 16 at Green Pond Country Club in Bethlehem Township. The tournament serves as the official qualifier for the junior division of the Lehigh Valley Amateur junior division.
Junior golfers can register online at http://www.golfgalv.com.
WHEN: Sept. 6-11.
WHERE: Saucon Valley Country Club.
THE FIELD: 264 players, age 25 or older, with a USGA Handicap Index of 3.4 or lower.
IF YOU GO: Admission is free, and spectators are able to walk the course. Saucon Valley's Old and Weyhill courses will be used for qualifying.