MANCHESTER, Vt. — The 14th hole at the Ekwanok Country Club slopes downward gently, lined with sand traps hugging the left side, its green guarded by a towering maple to the right of the angled fairway.
St. Albans native Bryan Smith stood in the tee box, holding a comfortable five-shot lead in the final round of the 110th Vermont Amateur tournament, yet doubts, for the first time, were beginning to creep in.
Focus, the ficklest of necessities in golf, left the 31-year-old momentarily. He pulled it back with a safe drive down the middle of the fairway and a 25-foot putt to birdie the par-4, just as his competitors were falling apart with only four holes to go.
Finally, Smith was able to relax on his way to the Vermont Amateur Championship. Surrounded by family and friends, it has been a long journey from his earliest days playing at Champlain Country Club as a 7-year-old to winning the most prestigious amateur tournament in the state Thursday, July 7.
“I certainly appreciate all the support I’ve been given in the community,” said Smith, who resides in Jay and calls Jay Peak Country Club his home course. “A lot of people have reached out to me when I’ve lost some tight battles. Those same people were there to support me when I won. It means a lot for all my family. The community as a whole, I still feel very much a part of it.”
Smith’s parents, Steve and Judy, both still live in St. Albans. Growing up, Bryan would spend summers playing at Champlain from early morning to sunset, and he held that membership until was in his 20s.
Now, Smith resides in Jay with his wife, Emilie, his daughter Delaney, and two step-daughters. It’s a long commute to his job in Burlington, while still finding time to practice golf, something he says he could do only through the support of his family.
“Golf is the lowest of priorities there. However it’s an addiction for me. My family understands and supports that addiction,” he said.
Smith graduated from BFA-St. Albans in 2003, and was a sophomore when the school’s golf team won its first and only Division I state championship in 2001. The coach then was Bob Caggige, who played every Saturday with Smith’s father. Bryan and BFA’s current golf coach, Chris Hungerford, grew up playing together at Champlain.
Chris’s brother, Mark, was on that championship golf team with Bryan, along with Emmet Susslin, Keith Godfrey and Scott Mildrum. Keith and Mark qualified for New England regional tournament that year, while Smith shot a 79 in the state championship to help win the title.
“Back then there was some mystique to making the golf team,” Bryan said. “Competition was pretty strong back then. There were a lot of good golfers in the state.”
Bryan was talented in high school, but he had neglected formal training, and his swing fundamentals were enough only to get the job done.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies,” he said. “I could shoot halfway decent numbers, but I was nowhere near the player I am today. “
After high school, he went to Florida Southern College for three semesters, and tried to walk onto the NCAA Division II golf team, missing the cut by a single stroke on both attempts.
“It was a much bigger world,” Smith said. “I realized how much work I had to do.”
Smith transferred to Castleton, and it was on that golf team where he learned to simplify his mechanics, thinking simply and clearly when approaching each hole and each shot.
“I stopped worrying about my swing, all the small things. Golf is hard enough without letting those things wear you down,” Smith said.
Today, he says the best part of the game is his putting, and it was a big reason for his success in Manchester last week. As defending champion Alex Rainville, of St. Johnsbury, chased Smith, he hit the clutch 25-foot putt on 14, part of a three-shot swing going into the final four holes.
From there, Smith took a deep breath, seeing his family and his caddie at his side, two years removed from a final-round collapse that cost him the tournament.
“From there I knew I could have some fun and take it all in,” said Smith. “There were a lot of ups and downs but that shot fired me up. I was back in control of my game.”
And as he closed out the tournament on the 18th to win by eight strokes, his daughter ran across the green, scooped up for a championship embrace. It was the iconic image that most will remember from the lopsided finish.
Now Smith’s focus moves to the USGA Mid-Amateur tournament in September, He’ll first have to qualify in a sectional tournament. Thousands try out. Only about 200 golfers make the cut.
“I have a lot of confidence right now that I can compete at the national level,” Smith said. “The odds are significantly lower. But the reward is higher.”