When No One Is Looking
May 11, 2004
Justin Smith is not a loner, but the senior on the Minnesota men's golf team has always known when it's time to work and time to play.
"Champions are made when no one is looking," says Smith referring to a quote that he lives by. "To me it means that if you want excel, you have to do a lot on your own, outside the limelight. Over the years, I have learned how to work away from everyone else."
A native of Moon Township, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh, Smith grew up a talented two-sport athlete in golf and baseball, lettering in both sports in each of his four years at Moon Area High School.
Not only did he win the Pennsylvania state prep individual golf title, but he was also quite the pitcher on the mound, logging a 6-0 record with a 2.01 earned run average and a .350 batting average his senior year.
Smith says that when deciding on life after high school, Minnesota and Kent State were two schools at which he was looking to play golf. As he put it, Minnesota was a good academic fit for him and he quickly related to the members of the golf team.
"Going to Minnesota wasn't really a big change for me," Smith says. "I grew up in the North my whole life, and always took that break from golf in the winter. I really felt like this was the place where I could become a better player."
And it has been.
Minnesota entered the national golf spotlight two years ago when the university announced plans to cut both the men's and women's golf and men's gymnastics programs.
"We were told in a meeting of the situation about the recommendation for us to be cut," he recalls. "The team got together afterwards and figured these last couple of tournaments could be the last time we would be playing together. We didn't want to think about the following year, when we would be playing against each other on separate teams. We wanted to live out our last few tournaments together and go out with a bang."
After a respectable freshman season where he was fifth on the team with a 74.97 stroke average, Smith broke out of his shell during his sophomore year, and helped lead the Gophers to the 2002 NCAA Championship title.
In response to the threat, Smith and his Gophers claimed the first Big Ten Championship for Minnesota in 30 years, a fourth-place finish at the NCAA West Regional, which Smith won, and then shocked the golfing world by firing a blistering 6-under par 278 on the final day to claim the NCAA title by four shots. The win marked the first time a northern team captured the national title since Ohio State in 1979.
As for his Regional win, Smith notes that looking back on it now, it was probably the most important of his career. He paced the field with a 6-under-par 210 (70-72-68) to claim his first individual collegiate title.
"At the time (the win) wasn't that important, but looking back now, it really was," he says. "I think it really jump started my career. But winning was never a concern for me, it was just a matter of how to get the team through. We were coming off our first Big Ten title in 30 years and made a strong finish to place fourth at regionals."
Smith, who is often referred to as an intense competitor on the course, but quiet and reserved away from the links, states that 95 percent of his day is focused on something that has to do with golf. Some say that it why he earned the nickname "Bull."
"I think that most of the time people first meet me on the golf course," he says. "They get me at my most intense time, but I'm not like that all the time. In competition, I just flip a switch. Off the course though, I like to joke around and not think too much about golf. But on the course, I'm doing whatever it takes to win."
"To have all of my teammates, friends, and family there was unbelievable," he says. "It was great to make such a pressure putt."
Despite the uncertainty that surrounded the golf program, Smith remained motivated throughout the tense period by remembering what his father once told him.
Perhaps the biggest moment of Smith's career was sinking the final putt at the 2002 NCAA Championships that clinched the win for Minnesota. "In the middle of every difficulty, lies opportunity," Smith says of his elder's advice. "With the game of golf, you come across adversity. You have to deal with disappointment. If you think of it as an opportunity, you tend to work harder when things aren't going well."
Winning the national championship certainly helped Minnesota's cause for saving the golf programs, but it did not solve the financial headaches. The Gophers were still left with the issue of funding all three programs.
Enter head golf coach Brad James and former Gopher and Minnesota native, five-time PGA Tour winner Tom Lehman.
"Coach James was the ringleader in finding the donors," Smith says. "Tom Lehman came in and did a golf clinic in the area and we all put forth a lot of hard work to do a telethon through a local television station. We were and still are very fortunate to have the supporters of Minnesota golf that we have. Our golf team was too good to end like that. You just had to keep such a successful team like that going."
Thanks in part to the efforts of James, Lehman and the Gopher student-athletes, "Save Gophers Sports" wound up raising $2.7 million to spare the sports elimination for at least three years.
Having been on the roller coaster ride that never seemed to end, Smith is now putting the finishing touches on his golf career in the Twin Cities. Last year, Smith led his team to its second-consecutive Big Ten title and just recently finished tied for second individually at this year's Championships with a 3-under-par 210 (68-70-72). For his efforts, Smith was named first team All-Big Ten and to the All-Championship team as well.
In April, Smith was selected to the United States team that will compete at the 2004 Fuji Xerox U.S.A. vs. Japan Collegiate Golf Championship, July 13-16, at Taiheiyou Club Ichihara Course in Chiba, Japan.
Following the summer, he will return to school to complete his degree in communications and business and graduate in December.
And with his final stint as a Gopher winging down, the two-time PING All-American is very much still involved in the future of Minnesota golf.
"The program was starting to get good about 10 years ago, but it took off and we found the characteristics of the team," he says. "We go out there and treat it like the last tournament we play, and the guys coming in should do the same. "If you're coming to play, be ready to work hard. We look to not only make our program the best in the North, but tops in the country. There is still not a whole lot of credit given to northern schools, but that's okay, it never really stopped us before."