Stepping in dog poop is never a good omen but it didn’t prevent Jesse Smith from having the round of his life.
The pro golfer, who lives part-time in Southwestern Ontario, fouled his shoes on the 17th hole at Dubsdread Golf Course in Orlando last Wednesday while competing in a Fore The Players Tour event.
He was 10-under par at the time on the par-70 course and golf’s mythical number of 59 was very much on his mind.
But if his foot took a misstep, his game didn’t. He birdied the 17th hole and then nervously stroked in a three-foot putt on the 18th for a par and the lowest round of his career.
“It’s that magical number you dream about,” the latest Mr. 59 said by telephone Friday from Orlando, where he makes his home during the winter. “It was definitely a battle within myself to stay calm and execute the shot [the final putt].”
Shooting 59 is never uppermost in any golfer’s mind when he puts his tee in the ground on the first hole. But it didn’t come out of the blue for Smith, a 33-year-old who was born in New Hampshire but spends his summers with his extended family on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont.
He shot 60 at an NGA Golf Tour event in Orlando this past winter and carded 61 at Carlisle Golf and Country Club in Hamilton last year on the Great Lakes Tour.
“That was kind of a breakthrough,” Smith said of the Carlisle round. “I had never shot lower than 63 before that. I think every golfer can relate to that. You shoot a certain number and it’s tough to go lower, whether it’s breaking 90, breaking 80, breaking 70. It’s a big mental barrier you have to get through. Once you get through it once, it’s so much easier the following time when it comes time to do it.”
Smith made it look easy, indeed, last Wednesday at Dubsdread as he went on his birdie barrage, which included three in a row on the front nine and four in a row on the back. He made 11 birdies in all against no bogeys. Oddly, he played both of the par-fives in par.
“Throughout the day, I felt good in every aspect of my game,” he said. “I seemed to have good yardages all day and was comfortable. I was able to really see the shot.
“…When you see it well and feel it well and you’re able to do it, those are the special days.”
He said he started thinking about 59 after sinking a birdie putt on the 13th hole. That didn’t help his task at hand.
“I started to get ahead of myself and think of what my score was and what holes were coming up,” he admitted. “I was starting to fight the battle of getting ahead of myself.”
But those inner demons did not surface enough to derail his quest. He birdied the 14th, 15th and 17th holes to set up the nervous finish on the par-five 18th.
Needing just a five on the final hole, which he considers the easiest on the course even though he had never played it well in previous rounds, he struggled to make par. He missed the green on his approach shot, chipped to three feet and then faced the short left-to-right slider.
“I was definitely nervous,” he said. “I felt physically different.”
The 59 gave him a four-shot lead over Andy Pope, a friend and fellow mini-tour player who was coming off a start on the top-level PGA Tour at the Tampa Bay Championship the weekend before.
The second and final round Thursday started with another bad omen. Smith cracked his driver on his opening tee shot. From there, he struggled with his form, not to mention the classic mental challenge of backing up one great round with another. By the end of the front nine, his lead had evaporated.
Smith went on to shoot 74 and place second, two strokes behind Pope. “That just shows you how golf is like life,” said Smith, whose father was a full-blooded Mohawk who grew up at Six Nations before heading to the United States to play college hockey at the University of New Hampshire and pro with the New England Whalers. “Just when things are great, you’re going to face some obstacles. You’re going to have to overcome some adversity.”
Despite missing the victory, Smith left Dubsdread with a jolt of confidence. His next stop on his continuing journey toward his ultimate goal, the PGA Tour, is on the Charlotte-based eGolf Professional Tour, another mini-tour. This summer, he plans to play on the Great Lakes Tour and PGA Tour Canada, where he competed in 2005, 2006 and 2012.
When he gets north of the border, he’ll reconnect again with the relatives on his father’s side.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve reconnected with all my family up there,” said Smith, whose father passed away when he was 16. “It’s been a great experience. The community has been very welcoming to me and it brings me a lot of pride to represent the community. I truly enjoy being up there at the reserve … and I love travelling in Canada.”
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