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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did not star Indiana native Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic congressman, featured no crooked politicians, and was absent a riveting filibuster scene.

But the updated version did parallel the 1939 film classic in one respect: a storybook ending.

Gavin Smith, an IUP junior from Stirling, Scotland, overcame odds longer than a Sahara drought to win the NCAA Division II golf tournament in May.

When this Mr. Smith went to Washington—the tournament took place in Blaine,Wash.—the stars were seemingly aligned against him. Smith’s recent performances could be charitably characterized as spotty, his confidence had ebbed, and he’d inexplicably left his wedge back in Pennsylvania.

But in a stirring finish right out of a Hollywood script, Smith drained a birdie putt on the first playoff hole to win the national title. Everyone was caught by surprise, Smith included.

“After the putt went in, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was like, what just happened? I went from having pretty much a rubbish season to winning a national championship. It was surreal.”

Indeed, Smith ranked among the more unlikely candidates to hoist the title trophy. Unranked and unheralded, he opened the four-day event with a 76, rebounded with rounds of 69 and 70, and then closed with a 74 for a five-over-par 289 that left him out of contention. Or so it seemed. As Smith relaxed in the clubhouse, the leaders—still out on the course—began to self-destruct, whacking wayward drives, plopping shots into ponds, missing “Gimme” putts.

“I had no idea my score would be good enough to win it,” he said. “I was just excited about finishing in the top ten and getting All-American. Then a couple of the leaders started making mistakes and I thought top five was possible. It wasn’t until they were on the back nine that I started to think, hey, I have a shot here.”

Smith hadn’t figured to find himself in such a favorable position when the tournament commenced at Loomis Trail Golf Club. His play during the spring segment of IUP’s schedule was marked by more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride, with nary a victory.

“My expectations weren’t really high for the week,” said Smith, a two-time Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Player of the Year. “To be honest, winning it never really crossed my mind because of the season I’d had. I played well in the fall, but in the spring I had a couple of injuries. I hadn’t really played good golf pretty much all semester.”

His already dim prospects faded further when he misplaced his wedge. Smith and IUP coach Fred Joseph went shopping for a suitable replacement, without success. Then, in a plot twist suggestive of an M. Night Shyamalan flick, Smith found the club he needed—in the trunk of a car.

“The host school was Western Washington University, and their coach, Steve Card, told Gavin he’d lend him his wedge,” said Joseph, whose Crimson Hawks placed twelfth in the team standings. “So he went to his trunk, took out his wedge, and let Gavin have it for the week. He used it a total, I believe, of six times, and he made five birdies when using it. Five times it was the perfect club—a club borrowed from someone’s trunk.”

Those birdies helped keep Smith within striking distance. And when leaders Gene Webster of Cal State San Bernardino and Patrick Bauer of Sonoma State faltered down the stretch—they each squandered an opportunity to win the tournament on the final hole and wound up tied for third at 290—Smith had new life.

After sitting idle for the better part of four hours, he rushed off to the driving range to prepare for a playoff with Kelbi Lee of Ferris State, who also benefited from the leaders’ late collapse. Not that it was much of a warm-up—Smith hit only four balls before an official arrived to escort him to the first tee.

Joseph’s heart by then was pounding like a jackhammer. And Smith? He was as relaxed as a napping kitten.

“I talked to Gavin before he teed off and I said, ‘Gavin, how you doing?’” Joseph recalled.“He said, ‘I’m as cool as a cucumber, Coach.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m nervous as hell.’ I could hardly get any air.”

Smith smacked his drive down the middle of the fairway, pulled the borrowed wedge from his bag, and hit an approach shot to within twenty feet of the flag. Lee, whose second shot stopped about twentyalumni five feet from the cup, on the opposite side of the green, narrowly missed his birdie putt before tapping in for a four.

Given an opening to win the tournament, the unflappable Smith didn’t flinch, rolling his putt into the center of the cup. The Crimson Hawks let out whoops and mobbed Smith, who in contrast to his teammates was as emotionless as Mr. Spock: no Tiger-style fist pump, no cap flung into the air, no exultant shouts.

But Smith’s stoicism couldn’t mask the magnitude of the moment. Not only had he clinched the Arnold Palmer Award, which will be presented to him at halftime of IUP’s football game against Gannon on October 31, he had become IUP’s first international national champion in any sport and the school’s first golf champion since Rick Hrip claimed NAIA honors in 1968.What’s more, Smith is the first PSAC golfer to win an NCAA title and only the fifth from a northern institution.

All of which led Joseph to identify with the nerdy bachelor whose blind date turns out to be a beauty queen. Talk about hitting the jackpot: He took a hefty gamble three years ago by welcoming Smith into his program, sight unseen. Former Coastal Carolina University All-America golfer Lorne Kelly, who recommends foreign athletes to U.S. coaches, issued glowing reports about a countryman who was as impressive as he was impassive on the course, and Joseph couldn’t resist. He placed a trans-Atlantic telephone call and invited Smith to IUP.

“I never saw him play,” Joseph said, shaking his head at the sheer absurdity of it all. “I was a little apprehensive because I had never done that before. I wasn’t even sure he could play. But when I saw him take that first swing, I knew I had something.”

Did he ever. Three years later, Mr. Smith went to Washington—without momentum, without much confidence, without his wedge—and provided a storybook ending to rival any of Hollywood’s.

IUP National Champions
Name Sport Year Title
Rick Hrip Golf 1968 NAIA
John Elliott Track and field 1973 NAIA (javelin)
Larry McCoy Wrestling 1975, 1976 NAIA (167 pounds)
Dan Deacon Swimming 1979 NCAA (200 backstroke)
Tammy Donnelly Track and field 1986 NCAA (10,000)
Dave Maudie Track and field 1987 NCAA (javelin)
Michelle Goodwin Gymnastics 1988, 1989 USGF (floor ex ’88, beam ’89)
Rose Johnson Gymnastics 1989 USGF (floor ex, all-around)
Dina Margolin Gymnastics 1990 USGF (vault)
Bob Babiak Track and field 1990 NCAA (decathlon)
Jeff Neral Track and field 1990 NCAA (javelin)
Alan Pugh Track and field 1992 NCAA (discus)
Bob Vranich Track and field 1993 NCAA (javelin)
Amber Plowden Track and field 2001 NCAA (100)
Derek Brinkley Track and field 2001 NCAA (400 hurdles)
Mark Bridge Track and field 2002 NCAA (javelin)
Sean Strauman Track and field 2008 NCAA (400)
Nafee Harris Track and field 2009 NCAA (long jump)
Gavin Smith Golf 2009 NCAA

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