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June 11. 2013 10:22PM

Mr. Smith of NH goes to Merion for U.S. Open


New Hampshire's Jesse Smith follows a tee shot during the 2013 U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying at Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., on June 3. Smith's threesome tees off in Round 1 of the Open Thursday at 2:42 p.m. (MICHAEL COHEN/USGA)

Jesse Smith hits the big-time Thursday afternoon.

Hits the big-time at 2:42 p.m. on Thursday, to be precise.

That's when the young golfer-on-the-rise will march onto the first tee at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., outside Philadelphia, for his first round in the 2013 U.S. Open championship.

An announcer will inform a gallery that may have shrunk in size a bit — fellow by the name of Tiger Woods starts on the same tee with Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott at 1:14 — that Smith is playing out of Barrington, N.H., and will perhaps add details like this is his first U.S. Open and in fact his first PGA event and that he is 33 years old.

And then Jesse Smith, the son of the late UNH hockey standout Guy Smith and a graduate of Oyster River High School in Durham, will step up to his golf ball and continue what has been a particularly wild section of his professional golf journey.

"It's very exciting, incredibly exciting," Smith said as he drove through Massachusetts on his way to Pennsylvania on Saturday morning. "It's been a bit overwhelming. But it's all good."

'There will be some nerves'

Smith has been trying to make it as a professional golfer and plying his trade in the minor leagues of the business since he graduated from Colgate University a decade ago.

His fortunes took a decided swing for the better a week ago when he battled through wet weather and a field of 80 or so who had advanced to his one-day, 36-hole sectional round of qualifying at Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y.

Smith holed out an eagle on the second hole of his second round to turn his solid round into a contending round. He closed it all out with a three-under day and, after sweating things out for a couple of hours while the rest of the field finished, found he had tied for medalist honors at the site and was one of four golfers who had nailed down a spot in the Open.

Now he joins Woods and McIlroy and Scott and Keegan Bradley and the rest of the field of 156 — 76 exempt players and 80 qualifiers — who are teeing it up this week.

"I'm sure there will be some nerves," Smith said. "But I'm going to go out and try to embrace that and realize they're there for a good reason. It will certainly be a different feeling than I've had before.

"But there have been times through my career where I've had to make cuts with no money in the bank and my credit cards maxed out. That's different, and this will be in a different form, but I'm going to try and embrace it and really enjoy the experience."

Hectic schedule

Smith was supposed to fly to British Columbia for the first event of the PGA Canada season last week, but instead, after driving back to his mother Lynn's home in Dover and arriving at about 1 a.m. on Tuesday, he passed on Canada to focus on the Open.

He played and practiced — though not as much as he would have liked — at the Oaks Golf Links in Somersworth, at the Golf Club of New England in Stratham and at Abenaqui in Rye last week — before moving on to Merion.

He's planning to jump back onto the PGA Canada Tour for its Calgary event next week.

"I'm probably expected to be there Tuesday for the pro-am," he said. "It might be kind of difficult."

Especially if he makes the cut at the Open and gets to play on Saturday and Sunday.

"I'm setting my goals to perform the best I can and have the most success I can," he said. "I'm not going to put a number on it. Obviously it would be very nice to make the cut, but I'm not going to think about the cut. I'll try to do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may."

Lots of support

As he prepares for his Open debut, Smith has a bunch of folks behind him.

"First and foremost, there's been a tremendous outpouring of support this week, which I really appreciate," he said. "So many people have reached out — family and friends."

Lynn, who works with the UNH Alumni Association, will be at Merion, and Jessie's sister, Jaime, is flying in from the state of Washington.

There are supporters such as John Gray and UNH hockey coach Dick Umile, who were teammates of his father and plan to be in Merion.

The UNH hockey program, in fact, practically adopted Smith after his father — who had become a veterinarian after a professional playing career that included time with the Hartford Whalers and remained active in hockey as head coach of the team at Oyster River High — died of a heart attack shortly after Jesse turned 16.

"Guys like Jason Krog and Mark Mowers and Tom Nolan and Steve O'Brien and Derek Bekar were really great to me," Smith said.

Brad Houston, who played hockey at UNH and graduated in 1966, was the golf coach at Colgate. Years ago at a Friends of UNH Hockey event, he encouraged Smith, then in high school, to come to Colgate and play golf.

"Jesse's personality is super, and he has charisma," Houston said. "And he's a thinking golfer. He's stuck with it for 10 years, and he's peaking right now. I really admire him for what he's doing. We'll see where it all goes."

Then there's Ann Carpenter, Lynn's mother and Jesse's grandmother and a longtime member at Concord Country Club.

"She plays in the women's league every Wednesday morning," Lynn Smith said.

Ann Carpenter, 89, will watch the Open from her living room.

"She's not afraid to kick me in the butt if I'm not doing the right thing," Jesse said. "She and my grandfather (the late Dr. Thurston Carpenter) were incredibly loving and supportive and were a great inspiration to me and helped teach me the game. She knows her stuff, too. So I listen to her."

alessels@unionleader.com


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