Nov. 28, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Nicole Smith couldn't take advantage of her "Big Break" in Ireland, but the former Tennessee golfer hopes to make the most of another chance in the spotlight when the LPGA's Stage III Qualifying Tournament begins Wednesday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Smith was one of 12 golfers -- six men and six women -- who participated this summer in The Golf Channel's "Big Break Ireland," a Survivor-style golf challenge competition. First prize was $80,000 and two Tour exemptions.
"I gained the knowledge of how truly important one golf shot can be and what it is to really stay in the moment in a golf shot," said Smith, who was eliminated from the reality program in Episode 6 after losing a two-hole, total-score match at Portmarnock Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
"That is definitely a blessing taking it into finals."
"Finals" is the third stage of LPGA Q-school, a five-day, 90-hole tournament at LPGA International headquarters featuring 144 players vying for full tour status in 2012. Top finishers (total number TBA) receive LPGA membership, and all others who make the cut after 72 holes earn status on the LPGA Futures Tour, Smith's home the last two seasons.
"Just the exposure and the notoriety she gained from this experience will be something Nicole will really play off of and it will really help her confidence," said UT's Judi Pavón, Smith's head coach from 2005-09. "So much of golf is just about confidence and believing in yourself.
"I think all that will really help her in qualifying school and in her future."
"My season started off pretty strong with that second in Mexico," Smith said. "And then I had a decent showing in Texas (tie for 17th). I missed May filming Big Break, and then I had some outside strains on my golf game, which actually I suffered a little bit because of it.
"But I got it squared off and finished decently, qualifying for finals stage. It was a roller-coaster year but there were a lot of great things, and things I can still work on. It's always good when you feel like you see improvement."
Pavón also has noticed the changes in Smith's management of her game.
"She has really taken her pro golf career seriously, which has been great to see," Pavón said. "In college when she first came in, she really had no idea how good she could be. Now she's seen enough other players to know she really has a special talent and she could really get there.
"She is positive, she believes in herself and I think she finally once and for all has decided this is what she wants. She likes the lifestyle and so all of that plays in together to be a better player."
"It's tough. It's a very, very tough lifestyle and not everyone's cut out for it," Pavón said. "I remember when I used to play people would say, `I'd give anything for your job.' And I'd say, `Well, I'd give anything for your job because you get paid every day you go to work.'
"But I think Nicole likes the flexibility of setting her own schedule. She posted something on Facebook the other day that said she was the CEO of her career and she loves being self-employed. As long as you embrace the good things about it, I think it can help you with the hard parts."
Smith appreciated the chance to visit and play in Ireland for the first time. She pursued "Big Break" through an online application and then made it through multiple interviews that took place during the spring's first two tour stops.
"They called and said I had made it to the final draw, their last pool of players," Smith said. "I had to fill out more paperwork and they said I would hear back from them by that weekend. It got to be Monday evening and I still hadn't heard, so I was like, `Crap.'
"Right when I was about to have my own little pity-party of sadness, T.J., one of the producers, called and told me I made it and I was like, `Shut the front door!' I was very excited."
It was Smith's first trip to Ireland. Kildare's K Club, home of the 2006 Ryder Cup, was the host course, with contestants taking side trips to Portmarnock, Malone and Carten House golf clubs.
"It was beautiful and it was cold," said a laughing Smith, who is from Riverside, Calif. "The golf was fantastic. It's everything you hear about."
Smith said she received tons of positive momentum and comments from her "Big Break Ireland" appearance. She hopes to carry that over to her best performance of the year next week in Florida. If that happens, Smith's really big break would be a true reality.
"I'm hoping I have a completely different schedule than I had last year."