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JR Smith got his start in college golf and, for a while, was at the center of the sports world

By on October 11, 2021 0

JR Smith starts Monday at the Alamance Country Club.

BURLINGTON, NC – When the nation’s most famous college freshman stood off the tee early Monday morning, he had officially entered Bizarro World. There were no boos from 18,000 Celtics fans or screens to prepare for friend LeBron James.

Instead, at the quaint Alamance Country Club in central North Carolina, 36-year-old multi-millionaire basketball athlete JR Smith of NC A&T State University in Greensboro made his first assist in a second career of varsity golfer in cool windy fall environment, shooting 83-78. A few passing college golfers, curious coaches and spectators, a handful of media outlets including LeBron’s production company The Spring Hill Company and HBO Real Sports, and a whole bunch of famous friends away from social media were paying attention. .

“It’s a bucket list for me to live my dream twice,” Smith said. “First playing professional basketball and now playing another sport in college. I’m excited about it, but I’m not happy.

Smith and the A&T team woke up at 5:45 am, and Smith started his game with a shotgun tee at 8:45 am on the par-4 fifth hole as the Aggies’ No.5 player, appropriate since 5 was his NBA on more frequent. Jersey number. Normally he would have carried or pushed his A&T branded golf bag, but due to a 36 hole opening day the course was cleared to roll. Smith plotted a playmate’s score and was paired in a quartet with Elon University sophomore Pedro Rabadan from Spain, Miles Albright senior from Gardner-Webb from Ocala, Fla., and Temple freshman Joey Morganti of Philadelphia (Smith’s chariot mate and a huge 76ers fan). Rabadan leads the tournament after rounds of 65-66 and his host Phoenix holds a large team lead. They discovered their draw on Sunday night.

Deep in Smith’s mind were the mid-courses he had just completed the week before. His scores did not threaten those of more experienced children who were in elementary school or younger when Smith was college age a half-life ago. His scores placed him 81st of 84 tally scores. Final 18 is scheduled for Tuesday morning in the fall 54 hole course.

Alamance’s course was not a length challenge, at just under 6,900 yards, especially for a 6-foot-6 athlete who can consistently cover over 300 yards. But the variety of doglegs and undulating greens designed by Donald Ross were enough to put the mind of a college golfing teenager, let alone someone who had never done it in a competition that matters and who admitted need more shorts. practice of the game.

“Being on the first tee in golf is like when they call starting training in basketball and now in golf they call training and it’s just you, by yourself,” Smith said. “It’s all up to you here. It’s a feeling of loneliness, but it can also be an uplifting feeling if you gain confidence.

Smith’s first round was similar to many rounds of college golf. Smith had three double bogeys (two on short par 5s), 34 putts (including three three putts) and played his last eight holes 12 over par. As the 36 continuous holes turned to the second round, Smith was more at ease, dropping to 1 under the start before a double bogey on the back nine resulted in another 42, then a final 36 on the new before for a 78.

In the annals of two-sport athletes, it’s hard to find a journey similar to Smith’s transition from the peak of his sport in professional sport to minor varsity sport as an amateur. Almost all of them are pro in one, then a second.

One comes to mind. Sam Byrd was a reserve outfielder with the mighty New York Yankees in the late 1920s and early 1930s, often referred to as the “Legs of the Bambino” for his role as a late-inning substitute for Babe Ruth. But after winning the 1932 World Series and quitting baseball in the mid-1930s, he turned to professional golf, winning several victories and playing in majors, including a third and fourth at the Masters of 1941 and 1942. as the only man to ever play in a World Series and Masters. There have been a number of professional baseball players whose arms failed them or the curveball confused them in the minor leagues and they turned to college football, like quarterback Chris Weinke who was in the Toronto Blue Jays system before winning the 1999 Heisman Trophy at Florida State.

Smith’s journey began earlier this summer when A&T coach Richard Watkins learned from CJ Paul, the older brother of NBA goalie Chris Paul, that Smith was interested in attending the nation’s largest historically black college or university. and be part of the golf team. Smith was accepted into college to major in liberal studies and began courses, mostly distance learning, in mid-August.

“During the day, it’s really simple,” Watkins said. “JR is either in class, on his computer or on the golf course. Going to school is her first agenda item. I know where to find it.

Then came the more complicated process of getting a professional athlete in one sport to compete as an amateur in another, an unusual dynamic with the NCAA that required tracking down transcripts from several high schools across the country. New Jersey frequented by Smith, one of which no longer exists, and assesses his classes. This research dates back to before 2004, when Smith attended Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey, a school where he wowed NBA scouts and ignored his college scholarship offer to the University of North Carolina. , a school located 40 miles from Burlington. The 2005 Tar Heels won the NCAA title, led by Sean May, Raymond Felton and future freshman Marvin Williams.

Smith played 16 years in the NBA with New Orleans, Denver, New York Knicks, Cleveland and Los Angeles Lakers, known for his soft shot and NBA titles alongside LeBron with the Cavaliers (2016) and Lakers (2020). During that race and on the days off, Smith caught the golf bug, first thanks to NBA Hall of Fame Moses Malone, who challenged him to get into the game during a charity event. Additionally, inspiration came from NBA sniper Ray Allen, who used the sport to relax on days off and when he retired, and Chris Paul, from Winston-Salem to proximity and professing a jones golf similar to his basketball intensity on the court.

Along with taking classes for the first time in nearly two decades, perhaps the biggest test was that of his own coaches and teammates at A&T. Watkins and assistant coach Saraid Ruiz put Smith to the test, playing numerous laps on courses in the Greensboro area to test his skills. They realized his abilities but also his raw sense of the convoluted rules of golf for competition. Smith also didn’t realize that qualifying between teammates was necessary until this fall.

Watkins recalls that Smith was more used to casual or celebrity golf, where balls in water hazards were just dropped without thinking about the correct placement and where first tee mulligans were the norm.

For the Aggies’ first fall tournament in late September, Smith was the only member of the school’s six-person team not playing in Atlanta at the HBCU Division I Invitational. For the second event in Burlington, A&T’s fall schedule is so busy in October that all six team members competed, as part of the five-man squad or individually. The nine-hole, three-tournament qualifiers in Burlington, Greensboro in two weeks and in Maryland the following week will serve as a larger sample of Smith’s game, over nine rounds, for the resumption of the schedule next March for the spring season plus important.

Watkins was the sole leader of the A&T golf program, which is still in its infancy. He has coached the women since the program began five years ago and the men’s program since its inception just four years ago.

JR Smith's scoreboard for the morning round.

Smith’s presence in the A&T Blue and Gold has already drawn unprecedented attention to Watkins and his team. They played in the pro-am at neighboring Wyndham’s Championship on the PGA Tour in August and attended the Tour Championship in late September at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, with Jon Rahm stopping for photos and a chat. This fall, A&T is participating in a new conference, the Deep South, which allows playoff play in most sports, including golf. The Aggies’ top two players, seniors Xavier Williams of Boiling Springs, NC, and Diego Gonzalez of Venezuela, received the extra attention and have chosen to return for their super senior seasons in 2022-23. , with three incoming first year students. Williams and Christyn Carr of the Aggies Women’s Team are on their way to the inaugural Golf Channel-televised Stephens Cup next week in Arkansas. Golf instructor Claude Harmon III, a friend of Smith’s, even promised to visit the team in Greensboro this fall.

“People didn’t even know we golfed at A&T until now,” Watkins said.

HBCUs have also grown in the golf world over the past two years. NBA star Steph Curry has pledged to financially support the revitalization, after 40 years of absence, of the men’s and women’s programs at Howard University in Washington DC. The Bison started playing this year. At Augusta National last April, it was announced that scholarships in honor of Lee Elder would be awarded to neighboring Paine College for the men’s program and the training of the women’s program. In September, the PGA Tour and United Airlines announced that they would work together to present a $ 10,000 grant to each of the current 51 HBCU men’s and women’s golf programs so they can expand their game program.

“Golf is still golf,” Watkins said. “The door is open, but you still need to have the skills to enter the room. You still have to have talent to seize the opportunity. Yes, we are seeing more activity, more effort, to give these children a chance. There is involvement at many different levels and jobs, not just playing golf, but working in golf. It’s great to see this kind of thing happening.

And with Smith’s early rounds over, there should be more attention.

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