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Cabot golfer making his way up the pro ranks

This article was published November 5, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

Hunter Smith of Cabot holds his trophy for winning the Adams Tour Fore the Kids Tournament in Brownwood, Texas. Smith, 24, won his first professional championship by one stroke over former Louisiana State University golfer Sam Burns. The tournament took place Sept. 13-16 at the Brownwood Country Club.

— Hunter Smith is taking full advantage of his second chance at golf.

Smith, 24, is a 2011 graduate of Cabot High School. He recently finished eighth on the money list during the 2017 season of the Adam Pro Golf Tour, earning $35,914 for playing in 11 of 14 events.

Smith, who has been playing golf since he was 2 years old, took a break from golf after his father, Jimmy Smith, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012.

“I committed to the University of Arkansas in high school, but I had some stuff come up, and I ended up going to UALR,” Hunter Smith said. “I played there for a year and a half. The second semester I was there, my dad got pancreatic cancer. I ended up losing focus. I didn’t put the grades together the second semester. I ended up starting to work and helping out with the bills and stuff at home.”

Smith was a two-time Arkansas State Golf Association Junior Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010. He led the Cabot Panthers golf team to two state championships. He was the medalist for the

Class 7A state tournament as a sophomore and a senior. Smith is also a nine-time Rolling Hills Country Club Champion.

Smith’s father is doing well.

“He is still with us,” Smith said. “It took me off path a little bit. That was 2012. I kinda lost focus. I was kind of off path, dealing with that for a couple of years. I’ve had a couple of guys sponsor me so that I can put all that I have into golf and get the results I need.”

Smith turned professional in 2015, playing a handful of tournaments.

“I was working at the [Rolling Hills] Golf Course here, and I played a tournament here and there. That is what I wanted to do my whole life.”

Smith, who would not name his sponsors, said he is thankful for them.

“At the beginning of this year, I had a couple of guys go all in and pay for all my expenses,” he said. “I just get to put everything into golf.”

Smith said the Adams Tour has no tie-in with the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour but is a competitive place to play golf.

“It’s probably the biggest developmental tour there is,” he said. “It pays well. It gets you in the weekly grind. You start outdoing pro-ams and practice rounds. It’s a whole-week grind. It gets you ready for the competition, which is really stiff. There are guys who have played on the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour who are playing on the Adams Tour. You are getting the competition right off the bat.”

Smith’s first tournament on the Adams Tour was the Hebert Open in Houma, Louisiana, on April 5-8. Smith finished tied for 48th, earning $650.

Smith missed the cut in his second tournament, the Merrill Lynch Open in St. Francisville, Louisiana, on April 26-29.

Things started picking up for Smith during his third tournament. He shot a 285 to finish tied for 28th at the Business First Bank Classic in Mandeville, Louisiana, on May 4-6. He earned $1,065.

Smith continued to stay steady during his play, finishing 29th, 19th and 18th in tournaments before coming into his own at the Texarkana Open, which was Aug. 16-19 at the Texarkana Country Club.

Smith shot a four-day total of 279, finishing tied for second, which earned him his first big payday of $9,175. He finished four strokes behind Myles Lewis, who shot 12-under par.

Things finally came together for Smith during the Fore the Kids tournament, Sept. 13-16 at Brownwood Country Club in Brownwood, Texas.

Smith won his first professional championship with a four-round 30-under par, which was good enough for a one-stroke victory over former Louisiana State University Golfer Sam Burns, who was the 2017 NCAA Division I Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year. Smith earned $20,000 for his victory.

“That right there … that is what I’ve been waiting on my whole life, to get a professional win and be successful,” Smith said. “There were a couple of guys who have played on the PGA Tour in that tournament. There is some real competition. It’s guys waiting on their opportunity to get there.”

Smith said he was playing OK in the first part of the season, making cuts.

“I took a while, since I took a break from competitive golf with everything going on,” he said. “I got off to a slow start. I was making cuts and making money but not getting the results that I wanted. I’ve been steadily improving every week.”

Smith said getting second in Texarkana gave him some momentum.

“I’ve always had some confidence in my game,” he said.

Playing on the Adams Tour hasn’t been intimidating to him.

“I want to compare my game to theirs,” he said of the other players on the tour. With being off for a little while, I have to step up and put a lot of work in to get back to that level. I feel like I’ve made a pretty good leap this year, from being a good golfer, then taking it to the next level. There’s a big difference playing well collegiately and playing well professionally.

“If you shoot even par in college, you’ll be pretty good. If you shoot even par professionally, it won’t get you anywhere. It’s just finding ways to shave strokes, finding ways you can improve a little bit by little bit because one or two shots can make a big difference for the whole week.”

Smith said he never took formal lessons playing golf while growing up. His father got a membership at Rolling Hills in Cabot when Hunter was 4 years old.

“I was pretty much self-taught for the longest time,” he said. “Once I turned professional, I started getting opinions from other people that know what they are talking about, just trying to further my knowledge and ability.”

Former Cabot High School golf coach Ronny Tollett said Smith was always persistent in improving his golf game.

“In his earlier years, one of the areas he had difficulty with was sand play, and I know he’s worked on that hard,” Tollett said. “He experienced a lot of success early as a ninth-grader.

“He’s always wanted to do well. He has never lost that passion, even working at the golf course. I think he’s had a goal to pursue this. It’s panning out for him.”

Once the Adams Tour regular season was over, Smith turned his attention to qualifying school for the Web.com Tour, which is one level below the PGA Tour.

During the first stage, Smith shot a four-day total of 275, which was 3-under par, in Lantana, Texas. He advanced to the second stage of qualifying school, which is Tuesday through Friday at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas.

“There are a ton of players,” Smith said. “There are multiple sites all over the country. There are four stages. You have to play well every week. You don’t know what the exact number (cutoff) will be. If I make it to the final stage, I’ll get some sort of status on the Web.com Tour, and hopefully, I’ll be playing on that tour next year. That’s the route to get to the PGA Tour.”

A few years ago, Smith said, he didn’t expect he’d be playing golf professionally and working his way toward the upper tier of professional golf.

“I didn’t know where I’d be, … I didn’t know what would happen with my dad,” he said. “I just try to stay patient. I’ve known since I was little that I wanted to be a professional golfer.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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