Smith cutting class to hit Houston links

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Chase Smith uses a different approach to knock a ball into the hole last week at the Vicksburg Country Club. Smith, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at St. Aloysius, will play in the Independent Insurance Agents Junior Classic national golf tournament beginning on Monday in Houston. (The Vicksburg Post/Melanie Duncan)

[08/10/02]Even before classes begin this week at St. Aloysius, Chase Smith is planning to play hooky for a few days.

Instead of reading new textbooks and memorizing his locker combination, he’ll be reading greens and memorizing pin placements.

Smith, 13, will spend his first week as a St. Al eighth-grader in Texas rather than the school on Grove Street, competing in the Independent Insurance Agent Junior Classic golf tournament.

He qualified by finishing fourth in the IIAJC state tournament in July, and will now go head-to-head against 123 of the nation’s best young golfers beginning Monday at Northgate Country Club in Houston.

Smith will be one of the youngest players competing in the tournament, which is open to all players 18-and-under, and may be the youngest ever to represent Mississippi since the IIAJC began in 1969.

“We usually have a good 14-year-old, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had a 13-year-old,” said Hal Graves, State Chairman of the Mississippi IIAJC.

Because of the difference in age between himself and some of the best players, Smith’s goal is simply to be competitive and make the cut after the first two days of the tournament.

“That’ll probably be a big goal of his, to make the cut, and that might be very hard to do,” said Smith’s father, Kent, the club pro at Vicksburg Country Club.

Chase Smith has been playing golf almost since he could walk. His father would often take him to the country club to keep an eye on him, and it was only natural that Chase would be quick to pick up a club.

“(Kent) would not take Chase to daycare, he’d take him here all day,” Chase’s mother, Linda Smith, said with a laugh.

Chase began playing golf competitively when he was about 9 years old, but it’s only been in the past year that he has dedicated himself to the game.

He used to play golf and baseball, and was a member of the Culkin Critters tournament team that reached the Dizzy Dean World Series two years in a row. After several years of baseball, however, he was burned out. The demands of playing on a traveling tournament team ate into his free time and, more importantly, his time on the golf course.

On the ride home from a tournament last summer, he decided to quit baseball and focus on his first love, golf.

“I figured I was a better golfer than I was a baseball player,” Chase Smith said. “Playing 90 baseball games a year, I kind of got burned out. Plus, baseball really hurts your golf swing.”

Although his father is a golf pro, both Chase and his parents deny that he was pushed into golf. In fact, his parents wanted him to continue with baseball.

“He did baseball a lot for us. You don’t have to make him play golf,” Kent Smith said.

Linda Smith said she was disappointed when her son quit baseball, but it has faded with time.

“I begged him to play (baseball). But now I’m over it since he’s doing so good. I see how much better he’s gotten since he quit, so I’m satisfied,” she said. “Everybody says his dad’s a golf pro, he pushed him into it, but we pushed him more into baseball.”

After turning his attention to fairways rather than basepaths, Smith’s golf game improved in a hurry.

He sliced nearly five strokes off his average in about six months, and finished fifth in the state at the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A tournament in May.

“I was struggling to break 80 last year, and now if I shoot 80 that’s not good at all,” Smith said. “I hope to be shooting under par next year.”

In late July, he played at the IIAJC state tournament in Natchez and finished fourth despite putting his first tee shot in the woods and shooting a first-round 76.

“I didn’t think after shooting a 76 on the first day that I was going to be in fourth,” he said.

Normally, a fourth-place finish isn’t much to brag about. This time, though, it was good enough to earn Smith an all-expenses paid trip to Houston and his first trip on an airplane.

He was almost as excited about the plane ride as he was about playing in the tournament, but it was dampened when it became clear that his mother would be unable to attend the tournament.

His sister, 10-year-old Carlye, doesn’t share his enthusiasm for skipping school, so Linda Smith will have to stay behind to watch after her. Kent Smith, Chase’s swing coach, will travel with his son to the tournament instead.

“I’d like her to go, because she never gets to go anywhere,” Chase said.

If Chase’s plans play out, however, there’s always next year and beyond. He said he wants to join the PGA Tour someday, a goal that would allow Linda Smith to see her son play in plenty of top-notch tournaments.

It would seem Chase is off to a good start already Tiger Woods, Fuzzy Zoeller and Bob Tway are among the PGA pros who have won IIAJC national championships. For now, he’ll settle for making the cut and missing a few days of school.

“When you get to the nationals, the course seems to get pretty long and it’s going to be tough for a 13-year-old to keep up for four days. But you never know,” Graves said. “I think he’s done pretty well already.”