A funny thing happened in June at the Buick Classic the moment
Chris Smith, a 33-ear-old journeyman, won for the first time on
Tour. In a sport in which there are no teammates, and only your
wife and accountant care if you win or lose, Smith stepped off
the final green at Westchester Country Club and was engulfed in
more dewy-eyed hugs than a sorority sister on the last day of
senior year. "There were all these players waiting for him behind
the green," says Smith's wife, Beth. "Jerry Kelly lifted Chris
right off the ground, or at least he tried to. Bo Van Pelt was
there--he's from Indiana, too--and so was that young guy, David
Gossett." There were also embraces from stray Tour officials,
caddies, tournament staff and even coldhearted media types. The
warmest greeting, apart from Beth's, was from LPGA Hall of Famer
and ABC commentator Judy Rankin, whom Smith regards as a second
Smith's fine play throughout this breakout season--including a
tie for fifth at last week's Southern Farm Bureau Classic--has
propelled him to 43rd on the money list, but if there were a stat
measuring popularity, Smith would be the Tour's runaway leader.
"He's the most outgoing and friendly person out here," says Tour
veteran Skip Kendall, "and he treats everybody the same, so it's
not just the players who are his friends."
During tournament weeks Smith is usually the hub of most
off-course activities. "He's like a cruise-ship social director,"
says Kendall. "He's our Julie McCoy." Although Smith sometimes
travels with Beth and their two children, Abigail, 9, and
Cameron, 5, more than half of his evenings on the road are spent
with the boys, most often at baseball games and rock concerts.
His wingmen cut across the usual Tour class divisions, extending
from players to equipment reps to caddies (including Matt
Minister, Smith's own caddie and one of his best friends). Among
the players, his core accomplices come from a group in their late
20s and early 30s who paid their dues with him on various B
circuits--pros such as Kendall, Cameron Beckman, Joe Durant, J.J.
Henry and Gary Nicklaus.
Part of what makes Smith so popular is his pleasantly perverse
sense of humor. At the beginning of each season, he likes to fill
in the SPECIAL INTERESTS section on the Tour's publicity
questionnaire with false interests. Perusing the last few
seasons' media guides, you find Smith claiming to be a gourmet
cook and an accomplished painter, among other things. "A couple
of years ago I listed karaoke singing," he says. "I got more
attention from the Japanese reporters than Shigeki Maruyama did."
At the British Open this year Smith had lunch with executives
from McIlhenny, the company that makes Tabasco sauce. Says Smith,
"One of the higher-ups sat down with me and said, 'I hear you're
into antique-car restoration,' and he launched into a five-minute
speech about his '67 Mustang. Finally I had to tell him I made it
all up and that I don't know a thing about cars. I broke his
This spring Smith's puckishness led to a memorable segment of
Inside the PGA Tour that was dreamed up by the show's producer,
Tim Lund, who considered Smith "the only guy on Tour who could
pull it off." On the day of the shooting a dressed-down Smith
showed up at a Florida course pretending to be a novice golfer.
He was paired with two 50-ish gentlemen who exercised extreme
patience but couldn't help rolling their eyes as Smith
cold-topped tee shots, whiffed approaches, hit chips sideways and
pleaded with them for help. "I'm open to any suggestions you guys
can give me," Smith said at one point, in mock frustration.
Shifting gears after some rudimentary tips from his playing
partners, he then started to launch 320-yard drives, make
effortless birdies and giggle as their jaws dropped. He tortured
them for six holes before coming clean.
Smith has dragged his Tour brethren to baseball games across the
country, though his heart will always be in St. Louis. He started
keeping company with the Cardinals' players after being
introduced to catcher Tom Pagnozzi in 1995.
When it comes to music, though, Smith's loyalties are less
parochial. "I used to be kind of a metalhead," he says, adding
that he still owns a T-shirt from Kiss's 1984--85 Animalize tour,
"but I'm starting to mellow out. I've even started getting into
country. I've got all the cowboy garb: the starched-up Wrangler
jeans, the big belt buckle and the cream-colored straw Stetson,
like the one George Strait wears." This year Smith has sampled
bands of every stripe: the Goo Goo Dolls in Phoenix, Better than
Ezra in New Orleans, Billy Joel and Elton John in Fort
Lauderdale, Kenny Chesney in Dallas and John Mellencamp in
Denver, where Smith stole away from the International with a pair
of fuzzy-cheeked Ping employees.
Having used his Tour juice to score fourth-row tickets to see
Mellencamp at Fiddler's Green, Smith sang along to every song for
two hours, his right fist thrust in the air, index finger
extended with the other four wrapped comfortably around a
wide-mouth bottle of Coors. For Smith this is home cooking. He
has seen Mellencamp seven times, the first back when the singer
was still called John Cougar. Most Hoosiers feel the same way
about Mellencamp, who's from Bloomington, that New Jerseyites
feel about Bruce Springsteen. "This song is what you're all
about, isn't it?" someone shouts at Smith as Mellencamp pounds
through Small Town. "It's exactly what I'm all about," he shouts
Smith grew up in Rochester, Ind. (pop. 6,414), in a tight-knit,
golf-crazy family. His mother, Rebecca, has played since she was
a child; his father, Terry, a former fullback at Butler, picked
up the game after college and quickly became an addict. Smith's
family, proprietors of a limestone quarry, went so far as to
build an 18-hole course, Rock Hollow, across their mined-out
acreage, but the course didn't open until 1995, long after Smith
had left town. He grew up playing a nine-hole track attached to
Rochester's Elks Lodge. "When I started, my two brothers"--Terry
Jr., 40, who manages the family quarry, and Todd, 39, the head
pro at Rock Hollow--"were seven and six years older than me. They
let me play so I could fill out the foursome with them and my
dad." Smith's father never allowed his kids to play the forward
tees. "I learned to hit it long trying to keep up." (Smith's
sister, Julie, 37, was subject to the same rules and was a member
of the Rochester High boys' team that won the state championship
By age six Smith was playing in tournaments such as the Little
Peoples' Championship in Quincy, Ill., then one of the few
national junior events. Smith noticed that the mother of one of
the participants was someone important. Smith and Rankin's son,
Tuey, hit it off, and for several summers thereafter, Tuey
boarded for a couple of weeks with the Smiths. Returning the
favor, the Rankins would pick up Chris on their way to the LPGA
stop in Wheeling, W.Va.
Those weren't the only times Smith rubbed elbows with golf
royalty. He chose Ohio State, he says, because he was told while
being recruited that Jack Nicklaus's son Gary was on his way to
Columbus. Living on opposite sides of the same dormitory wall, he
and Gary soon became close. After their sophomore year Smith
convinced Gary that they should try to qualify for the British
Open at Troon. The idea seemed even more clever when they
realized that they could make the trip on Jack's Gulfstream.
Neither made the field for the 1989 Open, but two practice rounds
Smith played before the qualifier made the adventure worthwhile.
The first was in Palm Beach, Fla. While Gary was off renewing his
passport, Smith was to play with Papa Bear. A nervous Smith
nearly fainted when he arrived at the 1st tee to discover that
the third player in their group would be Greg Norman. Once across
the Atlantic, Smith and his custodial family landed in Ireland,
boarded a helicopter and headed for Ballybunion. Flying in, Smith
looked down to see a welcoming committee of 5,000 people. "I was
hoping we'd maybe play in a twosome behind Jack," Smith says,
"but we had to play with all those people following us all the
way around. Half the time I could barely take the club back."
Smith hardly felt more comfortable upon reaching the grand stage
of the PGA Tour. A first-team All-America at Ohio State in 1991
and a five-time winner on the Nike tour, he failed to finish
among the top 125 on the PGA Tour in each of his first four
seasons. Last year, however, Smith made the leap to 58th, which
foreshadowed his success in 2002. Built more like a Big Ten
fullback than a golfer, the 5'11", 190-pound Smith has always
packed a wallop. He holds the record for the longest drive in
Tour history, a 427-yard missile at the '99 Honda Classic. The
key to his turnaround over the past two years is that he has
simplified his approach to the game. "Now I'm back to where I
started--playing by feel," he says. This year he ranks third on
Tour in greens in regulation and second in total driving.
Neither of Smith's famous mentors has been surprised at their
young friend's success. "I always believed that he was going to
be a very good player on Tour," says Jack Nicklaus. "It's taken
him a few years to get there, but he's stayed with it, and now
he's one of the big boys." Rankin, too, is full of praise, but
taking a page from Leo Durocher's book, she suggests that Smith
might be too nice and fun-loving to consistently finish on top.
"I've always thought Chris had tremendous talent and really could
do some special things," she says. "I'm not sure it's in his
nature to be the hardest worker or the fiercest competitor, and
it seems that now, at the very top, that's what's necessary. But
that's not to say that on his weeks he's not going to play
Smith, for his part, resists the notion that he'll have to put on
a game face to fulfill his promise. "I don't feel as if I have to
become a meaner person," he says. "Anyway, I don't think I could.
That's not me."
Smith's organizing ability. "He's our Julie
Mellencamp pounds through Small Town.