Story by Julie Williams of Golfweek
BLUFFTON, S.C. – From the southern hospitality to the oppressive heat, everything about the Players Amateur screams Lowcountry. On Sunday at Berkeley Hall’s North Course, one of South Carolina’s own walked away with the title and the promise of a PGA Tour start next year at Harbour Town Golf Links.
So many times in five previous starts at the Players Amateur, Matt NeSmith would hang around the top 10 all week but couldn’t take advantage. NeSmith, 21, was a 17-year-old entering his senior year in high school when he first scored an invitation to the Players. It shows what a different perspective NeSmith, of North Augusta, S.C., has now on success.
“I was a little high schooler trying to learn to play with the big boys,” said NeSmith, who will be a senior at South Carolina in the fall.
In the following years, NeSmith would win the AJGA’s FJ Invitational for an exemption to the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Cup, Rolex Player of the Year honors for a spot in the FedEx St. Jude Classic and secure his spot on the South Carolina roster. In June, NeSmith played his way into his first U.S. Open in a 36-hole sectional qualifier.
At Chambers Bay last month, NeSmith got in a practice round with Rory McIlroy, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose. He missed the cut.
“I didn’t know how I’d handle crowds that big,” he said. “I decided I was going to throw myself in the deep water.”
Those starts brought intangibles that helped NeSmith grow as a person and a player, but none were hosted in his home state nor were they at a course on which he had already won. When NeSmith shows up for the Heritage in April 2016, he’ll be just more than five years removed from winning the Junior Heritage at Harbour Town.
The Players Amateur truly is an endurance test. Temperatures reached the triple digits as players slugged out four trips around Berkeley Hall. NeSmith carried his own bag even though caddies are allowed.
NeSmith trailed third-round leader Chase Koepka by five shots at the start of the day. He was in the next-to-last group, beside Cal scrapper Shotaro Ban. Making something out of this top 10 started to feel like a real possibility after birdies at Nos. 13 and 15.
A group back, Koepka gave up the lead with a three-putt bogey at No. 15, and immediately lamented the spike mark in his line. When NeSmith holed a 25-footer for birdie at No. 18, the gallery erupted. Koepka couldn’t match it.
NeSmith put up a final-round 65 to finish at 13 under for the week.
“It’s the best final round I’ve ever had to win a golf tournament,” NeSmith said without hesitation.
In the shade spots, NeSmith’s family held their breath. Parents Darren and Beth watched with pride but it was his host family that made perhaps the most noise when NeSmith holed that last putt. The Andreolettis have housed NeSmith here for four years, and children Anna, 8; Nicholas, 6; and Julia, 3, trailed along in the gallery like little ducks. They screeched and pumped fists for NeSmith.
“To roll that putt in,” Darren NeSmith said after the round, “his confidence is high.”
It should keep climbing, right alongisde NeSmith’s stock. After ending the college ranked No. 25 by Golfweek, NeSmith has had a busy and successful summer. After the Open, NeSmith missed the 54-hole cut at the Northeast Amateur before heading back south. He’ll follow this start with the Southern Amateur, Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur. Another win – or even another high finish – would go a long way in helping NeSmith onto the U.S. Walker Cup team.
A year ago, when NeSmith left Berkeley Hall with a ho-hum T-21, he spoke of a very opposite feeling. It had not been a easy year, and finally, NeSmith pinpointed the problem. There were a lot of voices in his head.
NeSmith learned the game from longtime instructor Jackie Seawell, father to Alabama head coach Jay Seawell, and his own dad Darren, who caddied for members at Augusta National from 1996-2002 and is a fair player himself. When Matt got to the University of South Carolina, he began working with head coach Bill McDonald, and eventually instructor Todd Anderson out of Sea Island Golf Club.
“You need to hear one voice,” said Darren, who began working to be just a fan and a source of support rather than offering swing advice.
At the end of the 2014 fall college season, Matt and McDonald sat down for a “come to Jesus moment,” and Matt left knowing he wanted McDonald to be his voice.
NeSmith won two tournaments in the spring season – including the SEC individual title – and so far, could hardly have put together a better summer.
For fans and tournament organizers, a NeSmith victory at the Players Amateur is the best kind of storyline – it’s a local victory. When it’s time to tee it up at Harbour Town in another nine months, it’s hard telling what kind of experiences NeSmith might have added.