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LAKE FOREST, Ill. (Sept. 12, 2012) -- Three-time champion Nathan Smith and Garrett Rank each won two matches on Wednesday to advance to Thursday’s 36-hole final of the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, being conducted at the par-71, 7,078-yard Conway Farms Golf Club.
Smith, 34, of Pittsburgh, reached the final with a 3-and-1 victory over two-time Mid-Amateur champion Tim Jackson, 53, of Germantown, Tenn. In the morning’s quarterfinal round, Smith eliminated Corby Segal, of Santa Clarita, Calif., 1 up.
Rank, 25, of Canada, faced a tough semifinal battle from Todd White, 44, of Spartanburg, S.C., making birdie on No. 18 for a 1-up victory. He defeated Matthew Mattare, of New York, by a 3-and-2 margin in the quarterfinals.
Rank, who turned 25 on Sept. 5, is vying to become the youngest winner and first foreign-born Mid-Amateur champion.
The 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, for players ages 25 and older, started with 264 players and was cut to 64 for match play. After five rounds, the 36-hole final will be contested on Thursday, beginning at 7 a.m. CDT.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
Smith and Jackson entered the match with a combined five U.S. Mid-Amateur titles, with Smith having won in 2003, 2009 and 2010 and Jackson winning in 1994 and 2001. Smith knew that the road to a fourth championship match would be anything but easy.
“Tim's so solid, I knew I’d need birdies against him to make it happen,” said Smith, who is the youngest Mid-Amateur champion at 25 years, 2 months and 10 days.
Smith and Jackson swapped the lead for the first 10 holes of their afternoon semifinal match, with neither player able to extend a lead larger than one hole.
Smith took the lead for good with a 3 at the par-3 11th, and built his advantage to 3 up with wins at 13 and 14. Jackson won the 16th with a par, but Smith closed out the match by draining a 10-foot birdie at the par-3 17th hole. “I was just trying to keep it up on the top shelf,” said Smith of No. 17’s two-tiered green, “and managed to hit one in there close enough.”
Jackson could not help but chuckle at his opponent’s success.
“He did to me on the back nine what I used to do to people when I was 35 years old,” said Jackson, winner of the 2012 Tennessee Golf Association’s State Amateur Championship.
Smith trailed for much of his quarterfinal match with Segal. He gained his first lead with a birdie at the par-5 14th, but Segal’s birdie-3 at the 15th brought the match back to all square.
The match remained deadlocked until the par-5 18th. Segal deftly placed his approach within 10 feet of the hole. Smith’s approach spun around Segal’s ball and came to rest 5 feet beyond his opponent’s.
“I heard everybody go crazy and I saw the ball going everywhere,” said Smith, a two-time USA Walker Cup Team selection (2009 and 2011). “But then I realized that I'm outside his line, so I was probably going to give him the line.”
Smith calmly stepped up and sank the 15-foot birdie, and Segal’s attempt to extend the match came up short.
After steamrolling through his opening three matches, Rank faced his first real championship tests against Mattare, then White. While Rank never trailed in either match, his opponents never quite let him feel comfortable.
After playing only 27 holes in two victories on Tuesday, Rank was extended to No. 16 against the 26-year-old Mattare before prevailing 3 and 2. In the afternoon, Rank was never able to earn a lead of more than 1 up against White, a high school history teacher.
“I kept playing solid,” said Rank, a member of the Canadian National Team and a referee in the Ontario Hockey League. “Todd stuck with it and was right there until the end.”
The match came down to the par-5 18th hole, the first time Rank had played the final hole during match play. Rank’s second shot came to rest just off the green, while White found the rough off the tee and was on the green in three.
“I asked my caddie, can I put a club on it or do I need a weed-eater,” said a rueful White of that tee shot. “He said, you probably need a weed-eater.”
As soon as he saw the lie of White’s tee shot, Rank knew that he had a good chance to win.
“I knew if I could either get it on the green or up and down for birdie, I had a good chance of winning the hole,” said Rank.
Rank’s chip with a 52-degree wedge stopped 8 feet short of the hole. After White’s 30-foot birdie try came up a foot short, Rank converted his birdie attempt for the win.
White was understandably disheartened by his semifinal result, though it was a improvement on his previous best USGA finish, the round of 16 at the 2003 U.S. Amateur.
“Both of us played well,” said White.. “While I’m terribly disappointed right now, it makes it easier to handle knowing that I did play well.”
Against Mattare in the morning quarterfinals, Rank held the lead until the par-3 12th, which he lost with a bogey to square the match.
But Rank was able to turn things around at the par-5, 535-yard 14th. Rank’s 3-wood approach from 240 yards found the middle of the green, while Mattare hit a wedge to 5 feet. Mattare missed the short birdie putt after Rank made his birdie from 7 feet to regain the lead, this time for good.
“That was huge,” said Rank. “I'd lost 11 and 12 to go all square, so that got the momentum back in my favor.”
One U.S. Mid-Amateur record is assured, regardless of the victor. Either Smith will become the first four-time winner in championship history, or Rank will become the youngest and the first foreign-born winner in history.
“I'm honored now to have three, with the company I'm in there,” said Smith. “This championship means so much to me, just because I care so much about amateur golf. It's about as pure as it gets.”
“If it's a dream, I haven't woken up yet,” said Rank. “If it's all the hard work finally paying off, it is what it is. I'm having fun doing it. When you play well, obviously it's a lot of fun.”