SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – During USGA match-play championships, volunteers drive a caravan of carts to pick up competitors whose matches have ended before reaching the 18th hole. So players don’t have to wait around, these carts arrive prior to the completion of matches. For competitors who are losing, these vehicles are harbingers of doom, and match-play veterans grimly refer to them as “vulture carts.”
After three-putting to lose the first hole of his Walker Cup singles match against Nathan Kimsey of England, Nathan Smith started looking around for cart traffic.
“I felt like I was already on vulture-cart watch,” said Smith, 35, who was playing on his third Walker Cup Team. He had reason to feel discouraged. In addition to failing to win a match in the 2011 Walker Cup, won by Great Britain & Ireland, Smith had played in only one previous session of the 2013 edition at the National Golf Links of America, in the Saturday foursomes; he and Jordan Niebrugge lost against Matt Fitzpatrick and Neil Raymond.
“I had two years to think about the way things went wrong at Aberdeen,” said Smith, who didn’t play in the Saturday singles or the Sunday foursomes sessions. “Then in the match with Jordan, I left a putt short on 18 that cost us the match. So I wanted to come out and give the team something.”
Against Kimsey, Smith started contributing on the second hole, where he made a 15-foot birdie putt to square the match. Starting on the 105-yard sixth hole, Smith made four birdies in five holes, and the four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion parlayed that streak into a 4-and-3 win that clinched the Walker Cup-winning 14th point for the USA.
“That’s always how this works. The guy who does the least gets the winning point,” said Smith, of Pittsburgh. “I felt like I’ve been playing the best golf of my life. But it just wasn’t coming through. It was nice for it to come out at the right time and help out the team.”
Leading 10-6, the USA needed 3½ points in the singles session to regain the Cup, and USA Captain Jim Holtgrieve sent out Smith in the fifth slot. As the match progressed and it became more likely that Smith could win the clinching point, his gallery grew with every hole, as did the tension.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” said Smith. “I was doing some numbers in my head coming down 11, 12, 13. It’s always scary looking at the board.”
Smith may have felt nervous, but he displayed a relaxed, imperturbable veneer, even cracking jokes during the match. As he was preparing to tee off on the 10th hole, the marshals spotted a man walking slowly along Smith’s intended line of play. They shouted to try to get the interloper’s attention, but Smith didn’t care.
“That’s OK,” he told them. “That’s my father.”
Five holes later, Larry Smith was part of a large contingent of family and friends who, along with his teammates and Holtgrieve, ran onto the 15th green and helped Smith celebrate his greatest moment in the game.
“I was bull-rushed,” said Smith. “This ranks at the top of the list of anything I’ve ever done. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was trying to fight so hard for these guys. I never wanted a point so much in my life.”
Hunki Yun is the director of strategic projects for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.