U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Still Lacking a Victory, Smiths Have No Shortage of Memories
June 1, 2018 | Shoal Creek, Ala.
By Julie Williams
Duane Smith’s first caddie gig was for the woman he’s now married to, Sarah Jane. He has had no other clients, and she has employed no other loopers but for a one-off sub here and there. This relationship has survived a trans-continental move, a marriage, buying a home and now, contending in the 73rd U.S. Women’s Open.
There appears to be no secret, at least that either party can come up with.
“We’ve had a few don’t-speak-to-me moments after the rounds,” Sarah Jane said. “Duane is probably one of the calmest people I know, and I don’t get crazy out there.”
Both exude calm, even as Sarah Jane was carving out a share of the 18-hole Women’s Open lead on Thursday, then pulled away with it the next morning. Her 10-under-par 134, made up of a pair of 67s, tied the lowest 36-hole score in relation to par in this championship. In six previous Women's Open starts, Sarah Jane had only made the cut once.
There’s a comfort level that comes with familiarity, both on and off the golf course. Duane and Sarah Jane have known each other since they were 11 years old, playing junior golf on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. They shared two swing coaches, Pete Heiniger and Ian Triggs, and both had fathers who worked in the golf industry.
The spark ignited at an amateur event called the Queensland Mixed Foursomes, where the Smiths played as a team. Both were just shy of 20 years old, though Sarah Jane (then Kenyon) was more advanced in her career. She had been close to turning professional when a car accident resulted in a broken hand and injured knee that set her back a year.
When she did turn professional in December 2004, she bounced between the Futures (now Symetra) Tour and the Australian Ladies Professional Golf Tour with Duane by her side the whole way. Sarah Jane’s breakthrough came in 2008 when six top-10 finishes, including a victory, on the Symetra Tour bumped her to third on the season-ending money list, which resulted in an LPGA Tour card for the next season. Duane said the end of that 2008 season was the last time he saw Sarah Jane with the form she has this week at Shoal Creek.
That first year on the LPGA Tour started with the couple’s January nuptials. Many people told Duane that marriage would end his caddie gig. That never came to fruition, and now that they’ve been a team for 13 years, Duane has only ever questioned their partnership at times when he felt like he lacked the caddie savvy to dig his wife out of a hole.
“The good times are great and then I feel like sometimes the bad times, someone else would be able to get her through it maybe better than I can,” he said.
There have been mistakes on both sides. Sarah Jane tried to put a new set of clubs into play at the LPGA Lotte Championship in April, only to find that she had underestimated her lack of feel with those clubs, and how it robbed her of control over shorter shots. She missed the next two cuts, flew back home to Florida to retrieve the old set, and calls the whole thing a rookie move for a 13-year pro.
For his part, Duane retrieves a memory from the 2006 Long Drugs Challenge where Sarah Jane got into the field at the last possible second when Natalie Gulbis withdrew on the first tee. Sarah Jane quickly got to 2 under before arriving on the tee of a par 3 that tournament officials had shortened. Duane was unaware.
“It was the first good shot she hit all day,” Duane said. “It went over the green, over the car park, it nearly hit a cow in this farm. We made double.”
There’s no lack of memories, and there’s always someone to get coffee with on the road. The Smiths like to find the best little café in town at each tour stop.
“When it’s good, it’s worth every second that it’s a little harder,” Sarah Jane said. “I’m sure sometimes it would be easier to have someone you could say ‘See you later’ at the end of the day and come back fresh.”
Marriage is challenging for the Smiths in a way that’s totally opposite from a long-distance relationship, where there are almost no shared experiences around which to base small talk. When they’ve been on the course together all day, there isn’t much fresh material to discuss at home. Even with the best intentions to keep the golf talk to the golf course, that’s difficult. Duane sometimes will try to dig up an interesting story, only to have his wife tell him that news broke days ago. Sarah is on social media. Duane is not.
Just as golf fans would like for the Smiths to reveal the great secret to making this married partnership work, Sarah Jane would sometimes like to know just how you manage to break through for an LPGA Tour win. She’s still chasing her first one.
There is no guidebook for either. Smith, feeling on Sunday as if she were playing better than the results showed, asked swing coach Sean Foley if he could recommend some reading material that would tell her how to bring it all together.
“He’s like: ‘There’s no book, you idiot. Keep showing up, it’s going to turn around.’ He just kind of set me straight,” Sarah said.
Foley has been not just a swing coach but often a voice of reason and inspiration for Sarah Jane on this journey. A lesson before the Kingsmill Championship two weeks ago left Sarah Jane with such a good feeling about her game that she could even take positives away from a missed cut.
The way Sarah Jane’s mind works, bad play produces more nerves than good play. She’s still not going to get worked up, no matter what happens by the end of the weekend at the Women’s Open. Take it from the person who knows her best.
“It would take a lot to ever see Sarah fist pump,” Duane said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see it.”
Julie Williams is a Florida-based freelance writer.