Smith, 15, Not Awed By Big Stage at Junior Amateur July 21, 2017 | Andover, Kan. By Stuart Hall

At 15, Ryan Smith, of Carlsbad, Calif., is the youngest of the 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur quarterfinalists by two years. (USGA/Jeff Haynes) 

U.S. Junior Amateur

From appearances, Ryan Smith is the unlikeliest of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship’s quarterfinalists.

At age 15, he is the youngest of the eight remaining players by two years. While this is his second USGA championship start – he qualified for and missed the cut at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball in May – it is his first U.S. Junior Amateur, which can sometimes have a deer-in-the-headlights effect on newcomers.

But then Smith begins to talk, and it becomes evident that he was well prepared for the daily drama at Flint Hills National Golf Club.

“I have waited for these USGA championships because I know short game and putting get it done in these tournaments and that’s been the strength of my game for the longest time,” said Smith, of Carlsbad, Calif.

Smith tied for 47th in stroke play and has since displayed his match-play chops in his varied wins. In the Round of 64, against Wichita resident – and local favorite – Wells Padgett, Smith frittered away a 3-up lead on the final three holes of regulation before winning on the 22nd. On Thursday, Smith won the opening hole against Aaron Chen, of Fremont, Calif., and led throughout for a 4-and-3, Round-of-32 win. Smith finished his marathon day with a tense 2-up win over Kaito Onishi, of Japan, who opened the championship on Monday with a hole-in-one on the par-3 10th hole.

Against Onishi, Smith was 2 down through six holes and promptly won the next three to turn with a 1-up advantage. All square through 16, Smith won with a bogey on 17 and finished the victory with a birdie on the par-5 18th.

“He's probably one of the tougher opponents I'll play in this tournament,” said Smith of Onishi. “He's so consistent every time. He puts the ball in play, nothing crazy, he just doesn't have any weaknesses.”

From the looks of things, neither does Smith.

For the past nine years, Smith has been working with instructor Patrick McGuire, who is the director of Raspberry Golf Academy at the Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club in Leesburg, Va. – where Smith lived before his parents moved to the San Diego area six years ago.

“I would say 90 percent of our time we spend on short game,” said Smith, who has McGuire as his caddie this week. “So, it’s a lot of touch and feel, and it’s a gift of mine that I truly love and I treasure it.”

The confidence Smith shows in that aspect of his game emboldens him in other ways.

“I feed off knowing I can be aggressive at holes and if I hit it in a bad place, then my short game will save me 90 percent of the time,” said Smith. That was evident against Onishi when he closed him out by hitting a full lob wedge approach into the 18th green from 102 yards and leaving himself a 6-foot birdie putt.

As evening crept over Flint Hills National, Smith was not so much concerned about Friday’s quarterfinals opponent – Rayhan Thomas, of India, at 7:20 a.m. CDT – as he was putting his feet up.

Rest assured, Smith will be ready come Friday.

“Ohhh … I love match play,” he said. “I’m just an aggressive guy in general, so I can go after holes that I normally wouldn’t in stroke play. It’s just one hole. I was 2 down through 4 holes [against Onishi]. Once you get on a run, you can win some holes and really get ahead.” 

Smith may not follow 2016 champion Min Woo Lee’s path by winning the U.S. Junior Amateur in his first start, but it will not be for a lack of bravado.

“I’ve always had that confidence, that swagger that I can do things,” he said.

Even on the first try.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites. 

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