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Moon graduate ready for pressure of U.S. Amateur |

Moon graduate ready for pressure of U.S. Amateur

| Tuesday, August 12, 2003 12:00 a.m

When University of Minnesota golf coach Brad James talks about Justin Smith, it sounds as if he is describing a basketball player.

“He’s the kind of kid who wants the ball with two seconds left, so he can take the last shot,” James said. “He loves the pressure.”

Smith, a graduate of Moon Area High School, intends to prove his mettle at the 2003 U.S. Amateur, which runs Aug. 18-24 at Oakmont Country Club and the Pittsburgh Field Club.

Smith knows pressure. He was a key part of Minnesota’s NCAA title team two years ago. He also was rated one of the Top 50 Male Players to Watch by Golf World Magazine.

What’s more, he is a two-time All Big-Ten Conference performer and a legitimate candidate to become the fourth University of Minnesota product to play on the PGA Tour. The others are Tom Lehman, James McLean and Aaron Barber.

But of all Smith’s accomplishments thus far, he says winning at Oakmont would top the list, at least from an individual standpoint. It also would be an automatic invitation to play in the Masters, the British Open and the U.S. Open.

“It’s the biggest amateur tournament in the world, so if you’re going to win any tourney, that’s the one,” said Smith, 21, whose family now lives in Franklin.

Smith qualified for the U.S. Amateur by shooting a 6-under-par over 36 holes at a qualifying tournament July 28 at New Castle Country Club. The top three finishers qualified, and Smith finished second, behind highly decorated local amateur Sean Knapp.

This will be Smith’s third trip to the U.S. Amateur. He missed match play “by a few shots” his last two times and aims to rectify the situation, although he hasn’t played the course since he was in high school.

Of course, Smith plans to win every tournament he enters. It’s one reason they call him “Bull.” Another is that he stands 5-foot-11, 225 pounds.

As his career progressed in high school, Smith was lightly recruited. His only Division I options were Kent State and Minnesota. He also was an excellent pitcher on the baseball team — he was 6-0 with a 2.01 ERA his senior year — but made it clear that golf was his future.

“He knew how good he was,” James said.

James wasn’t expecting much when he first watched Smith play. Things changed quickly when James observed Smith’s accurate drives and precise putts.

“I thought, ‘I have to have this kid on my team,’ ” James said.

Smith jumped at the chance to play for Minnesota and helped save the program during his sophomore year. In April 2002, the university announced that men’s golf would be cut. The team responded with an incredible fund-raising effort — aided by Lehman — that raised $3 million. But before the drive picked up momentum, the team provided its own by winning the NCAA title, just a month after the cut was announced.

“That definitely helped,” Smith said.

Smith was the team’s most consistent golfer in the NCAA championships, with rounds of 69-70-71-69 to tie for fourth place with a 5-under 279 . He has had plenty of memorable moments in his three-year college career, including a hole-in-one (with a four-iron) on a 210-yard, par-3 hole at Michigan State.

James recalled a tournament last season at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington when Smith came through in the clutch. The Gophers needed Smith to birdie a par-5.

“I said, ‘Justin, we need a birdie,’ ” James said. “He said, ‘All right.’ ”

Smith drilled a perfect drive down the fairway, hit a 3-wood onto the green and two-putted for the birdie.

Smith plans to graduate in the spring of 2004 and to enroll in PGA qualifying school a year later. He knows that the odds are stacked against anybody who tries to join the PGA. James estimates that of the NCAA’s top 20 golfers in any given year, about three will go on to play on the PGA.

“It’s a lot different than college, when your coach and parents are right there with you,” James said. “In college, everything’s done for you. After that, it’s so difficult because you’re putting to pay your rent. Those 5-footers are for meals.”

That is serious pressure. Smith can’t wait.

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