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Former Golf: Ex-UL, STM star Smith relishes memorable golf weekend

Dan McDonald, Special to the Advertiser, April 27, 2015

Michael Smith
Photo AP

NEW ORLEANS – Michael Smith wasn’t going to play the “what if” game on Sunday.
The Lafayette native knows that a couple of strokes here and there during the past four days would have made a huge difference in his short-term professional golf career.
But given the fact that he made it through a mandatory pre-qualifying round and the rigors of Monday qualifying, his week at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans goes down as an unqualified success.
“It was a lot of fun, it really was,” Smith said after capping off the best week of his professional career with a one-under 71 on Sunday over the TPC Louisiana course in Avondale. “I had a great week, from start to finish. If you’d told me last Friday when I was playing the pre-qualifying that I was going to get in the tournament, make the cut and finish in the middle of the pack, I would have taken it.”
What the 29-year-old Smith took out of his first-ever true PGA Tour event was a tie for 36th among the world’s best golfers and a $31,099 paycheck. What he also took out of the Thursday-Sunday event – one in which he posted four straight subpar rounds – was a big confidence boost, even more than his 2011 appearance in the U.S. Open when he survived two similar qualifying events.
“Knowing that I can get out there and compete gave me a lot of confidence,” he said, “especially the way I did it. I didn’t hit it very well most of the week, but to chip and putt like I did makes me feel even better. To know that I can compete even when I’m not playing my best, that felt good.”
His putter also felt good … better than good, actually. He finished second in the field in strokes gained putting and tied for 14th in putts per greens-in-regulation. His second and third rounds, which spanned three days with the consistent rains that forced play suspensions, were filled with lengthy birdie putts and helped him total 20 birdies against eight bogeys for the tournament. He didn’t have a single hole worse than bogey.
“I putted as good as I could,” he said. “My putter couldn’t have been better for me all week. I wish I could have hit it better to take even more advantage of that, but I guess you take it any way you get it.”
Smith’s 70-68-67-71–276 score tied him with seven other players for that 36th spot out of the 71 players that made the cut for the two weekend rounds. He was the second-highest finisher in the field among players that did not have any PGA Tour status (Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, a member of the European Tour and not a PGA Tour member, finished one stroke better at 275).
He was also easily the highest finisher among the four players to survive the rigors of Monday qualifying at English Turn where he was one of four survivors out of 95 participants – not to mention making it just through the Friday English Turn pre-qualifying when 145 players were gunning for spots in the Monday event.
And he almost pulled out before Monday’s play even started, when wife Sydni  and child both came down ill.
“It was a crazy week,” he said. “Friday, the pre-qualifying you normally don’t worry too much but this year you had to break par so it wasn’t a walk-through. You had to play good golf. And then Monday I was on the course and I knew she (Sydni) was feeling horrible. I asked if I should withdraw … it was just a Monday qualifier, but she said go ahead and play, they’ll be fine. She pushed me on to play.”
After Monday qualifying, Smith played his first round on the TPC Louisiana course in seven years in Tuesday’s practice round. He’d last played there in a pick-up round when he accompanied fellow Lafayette golfer B. C. Thibeaux in his preparations for a U.S. Amateur qualifier.
“There’s so much of the course I didn’t remember,” Smith said. “I probably had less time on that course than anybody in the field, so that wasn’t an advantage.”
What was an advantage was playing near home … but it was a different kind of home than his frequent appearances in the Web.com Tour’s hometown Chitimacha Louisiana Open. Smith made the cut there back in late March.
“I’ve always told the guys on the (Open) board, guys that have been so good to me in putting me in the field, that I put so much pressure on myself to play well at home,” he said. “Honestly, I felt more pressure there (in the Louisiana Open) than I felt this week. There’s something about playing right there at home, you really want to stand out, and it’s hard to play good golf that way.”
Smith’s paycheck is more important for ranking purposes and future possibilities than its buying power. His first-ever PGA Tour payout of $31,099 currently has him 240th on the season-long money list, and that’s significant since players ranked 126-200 on the final money list earn spots in the Web.com Finals four-tournament series later this year and will compete for status on both tours for 2015-16.
It took $109,299 in earnings to get into the top 200 last year, and Smith would have had to play four shots better this week to reach that mark in just this one tournament. That means he has to play his way into more Tour events this year through Monday qualifying, make the cut and try to add to that total to earn a spot on one of the two Tours for next season.
It’s not an easy road, but at least now with his made-cut this week, he doesn’t have the pre-qualifying to worry about, and he also has options going forward.
“I haven’t really sat down to figure it out,” he said, “but since I got a decent check I’ll probably do a little more Monday qualifying. I did get on the board, and if I can get back out there and make a couple more decent checks, all of a sudden I have a chance. That’s going to be the game plan.”

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