The azaleas and dogwoods glow in the sun everywhere you look. The bright soft sand bunkers act as big holes throughout the shiny green grass. The beautiful nature at Augusta National Golf Club and being the home to the annual Masters Tournament makes it one of the most exclusive golf courses in the world. Many golfers have the dream of playing there, and in April, Nebraska’s Kate Smith gets to do exactly that.
Smith, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was all set to graduate last spring and head off to the LPGA until the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled her senior season.
“Our season was taken away and I had about two weeks where I didn’t touch a club,” Smith said. “Then I was like, ‘Wow, what an opportunity, the world is standing still, if I can grind and really work hard I could rise the ranks a little.’”
The Detroit Lakes native returned for a fifth year at Nebraska, which gave her another opportunity to improve her game and qualify for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur against the world’s top women amateur golfers.
Smith, a graphic design major at UNL, spent the summer of 2019 playing in events to improve her amateur golf ranking, which is the key to qualifying for one of 72 spots. Amateurs qualify if they are in the top 30 in the US, top 30 in the world or chosen as one of the 12 additional picks.
To get there, Smith would need to rank 30th or above in the US.
“I was about the front 200 in the world, in the summer, I was 127 to 180,” Smith said.
During the first week of 2020, Smith ranked 46th in the US, which didn’t qualify. As it turned out, even if Smith did qualify, she would not have been able to compete since the event was cancelled because of COVID.
Not only did the Augusta tournament get cancelled but so did the remainder of Nebraska’s 2019-20 season.
When the NCAA granted fall sports student-athletes an extra year of eligibility, Huskers head coach Lisa Johnson talked with Smith about the decision to come back for a fifth year, ultimately looking at how it would affect Smith’s future.
“With the unknown, we were not sure if she was even going to have the opportunity to qualify for the LPGA Tour,” Johnson said. “As it turns out, she would not have had that opportunity as they didn’t have qualifying school last year. So it just seemed like a pretty easy choice to continue her amateur career and stay at Nebraska.”
The opportunity to come back for a fifth year at Nebraska was too good for Smith to pass up.
“All the opportunities I’ve had at Nebraska and the coaching staff that is currently there, it’s good stuff,” Smith said. “There’s unfinished business. I think there are things we still could’ve done as a team and an individual.”
Smith wasn’t the only player who used the extra year of eligibility. Jessica Haraden of Thousand Oaks, California also decided to come back for a fifth year at Nebraska. She shot a career best 220 at the Golfweek Conference Challenge in September.
For Smith, it helps to have a father who is a PGA professional back home in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
“He helps a lot, and my brother played golf in college, so he would caddie for me. It’s really like a team effort,” Smith said.
The grind didn’t stop there. Smith could not improve her rank unless she played in tournaments, so she played wherever she could.
“Pretty much from May until now, I played in every event I could drive to,” Smith said in February. “I’ve found some success that way, which really helped my ranking.”
Placing top 30 in the US was the key to Augusta, and at the end of 2020, Smith was right there.
“I really didn’t think I had a chance because I was like 31, 34, bouncing around all summer in the US rankings,” Smith said.
All Smith could do was wait and see.
It was January 2021 and Smith was getting ready to begin her fifth season of Nebraska golf. If she qualified for Augusta she would be hearing something soon but so far, she had heard nothing. Smith was quarantining like most athletes in the Nebraska sports bubble. One day during Smith’s quarantine in mid-January, she was in her apartment and opened her laptop to check her ranking. She didn’t like what she saw.
“I checked the rankings and my ranking got worse,” Smith said.
It wasn’t great news to see her ranking go down, but seconds later, it didn’t matter.
“I got a notification on my laptop telling me that UPS is trying to send a package from Augusta National.”
Inside the package was an invitation to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Tournament. Smith finally got the news she worked so hard to hear. It wasn’t an ordinary invitation, either, but a handwritten note.
“It’s green and it has gold foil on it. It looks like you’re going to a ball or something. It’s crazy,” she said.
Smith’s father Kris gives credit to her hard work ethic and her time at Nebraska.
“With purpose and hard work, your game gets better,” Kris said. “Kate has used her opportunity of having a fifth year at Nebraska to continue the process of getting better.”
Johnson pointed to her experience at Nebraska that helped her get qualified.
“She’s played all different types of golf courses, played on different grass, she’s really learned to play through all the adversity that golfers face,” Johnson said.
To prepare for Augusta, Smith started training off the putting green, too.
“This past fall, I brought my computer and streamed the Masters next to myself on the range,” Smith said. “I also listened to a podcast of a PGA player who explained his process through playing Augusta when it was his first year there.”
The annual Masters Tournament isn’t scheduled until after the Women’s Amateur, but Smith isn’t treating it any different.
“This Augusta tournament is just like the female version of the Masters,” Smith said. “Luckily, enough they made it an amateur event instead of a professional event, which means a bunch of us college players get to play in it and enjoy that experience.”
Smith realizes Augusta National is an infamous golf course with a lot of history behind it, but she be worrying about more important things come tournament time.
“I think the initial plan for me is to focus on controlling what I can control,” Smith said. “This is a seven iron, and this is a seven iron at any course in the world right now. Not like hey, this is a seven iron at Augusta; don’t screw it up.”
But it is Augusta, and it is a once and a lifetime opportunity to not only play but compete there.
“It’s just a complete bonus to my college career,” Smith said. “I’m excited whatever the score is. Obviously I’d love to compete and be in contention and that’s the goal, but I can’t forget where I am and how special it is to be there.”
Her five years at Nebraska have mentally prepared her, too.
“Traveling is a huge thing college athletics teaches you to do, just adapting each week,” Smith said. “With golf, it’s not like basketball. It’s not the same hardwood every week. We play all these different grasses and climates.”
Adding to that, Smith has also gotten great advice from Johnson.
“She’s been (to Augusta) with another player two years ago,” Smith said. “She’s given me a lot of advice on what to do, what not to do, and what to expect, which is huge.”
Before this season, Coach Johnson was the head coach at Idaho State where she went to Augusta with one of her players. On advice for Smith, Coach Johnson said it’s more about the moment than the play.
“Just being on the grounds of sacred Augusta National is unlike any experience that you’ll ever have in golf,” Johnson said. “The difficulty of the course is a factor in that, but it’s just the overall experience that makes it such an unbelievable opportunity.”
Smith is able to bring three guests with her to Augusta.
“It’s pretty tough,” Smith said. “I have one brother and my two parents so I think it’s right I take all of them.”
Smith’s father Kris says he can’t wait to be involved in this special moment with her, but he would’ve gone to Augusta either way.
“My wife and I could just go down there and stand outside the gates and see her before and after,” Kris said. “But she decided that the three of us go along and her brother who is a big intricate part to her success.”
Smith and her family will arrive at Augusta on March 28. Smith will play three practice rounds before the tournament officially starts on April 1. It’s a big opportunity, and Smith knows what she wants to get out of it.
“It’s been crazy, I know it’s been a really hard year for a lot of people,” Smith said. “I definitely don’t want to say it’s been a good year for me, but I’ve definitely tried to make the most of it, and I’m glad I did.”