The relationship between current University of Minnesota associate head golf coach Andrew Tank and former Gopher and three-time All-American Justin Smith started when they were teammates for two seasons at Minnesota. Tank, a senior, and Smith, a sophomore, were both a part of the roller-coaster ride that was the 2002 National Championship year.
"At the start of the [2001-02] season, they announced that the team was being cut. The University was going to eliminate men's and women's golf along with men's gymnastics," Tank said. "It was a turbulent time with a lot of uncertainty. We had a really talented team, but a lot of guys were thinking about where they were going to have to transfer and it was distracting."
Inevitably, the Gophers went on to defy odds and win the NCAA Championship in 2002 behind a solid performance by then-sophomore Justin Smith. Smith made a birdie putt on the 18th hole during the final round to solidify the Gopher victory. When interviewed after the round, Smith recalled making the putt on 18 as "one of the greatest moments of my life."
Now, eight years later, the two are teaming up again as Smith is attempting to earn his PGA Tour Card at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, or Q School, this year. Last year, Smith didn't make it through the first stage of Q-School and he went to Tank for help.
"Justin came to me and said, 'You know, I've been out here for three years [trying to get my PGA Tour Card] and I need to take a different approach for next year.' We sat down, right around this time last year, and decided to make our relationship more defined and more towards a player-coach relationship.
"Justin is a real talented player and, in college golf, talent alone can get you to the top. When he was just starting out [on the mini-tours] he was having some success, but he wasn't as consistent as he wanted to be. He began focusing on being more consistent in practice. It's important to have a plan for practicing and a defined pre-shot routine, especially when you are on your own out there."
Smith also understands the benefit of having Tank around as he makes his push for a PGA Tour Card.
"Andrew has been around my game ever since we played together in college. He probably knows the ins-and-outs of my swing better than I do. The biggest advantage we have is trust. I trust him to be able to pick shots for me. It is going to benefit me [during this stage and the final stage] for him to be able to analyze the golf course and to help me hit the right shots."
Q School is a grueling, three-stage event where hundreds of players from all across the world attempt to earn a PGA Tour Card. Last year, 28 players earned their full-time card, with one notable "graduate" being 2009 PGA Champion Y.E. Yang.
Smith passed through the first stage of qualifying with a 4-under 284 at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, GA. His next test will be at the Hombre Golf Club in Panama City Beach, FL on November 18-21. He will be fighting to advance against players such as former Gopher Clayton Rask, 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel, and former Oklahoma State standout Casey Wittenberg. This is the third time that Smith has played Hombre Golf Club for Q School qualifying.
"It really helps [that I've played Hombre before]," Smith noted. "I feel like I know the course very well. There are definitely some tricky holes on the course, but I know when to play aggressive. Patience is very important at Hombre."
With the ultimate goal being to obtain his PGA Tour Card, Tank also discussed Smith's goals for the upcoming season.
"We talked about Justin becoming as good as he can be. It's important not always to focus on the results, but to also think about making yourself better each day. His goal is to play on the PGA Tour and win and compete out there, which he has the capability of. The key to getting there is to focus on the right things each day. If you focus on those result-oriented milestones, it can get in the way of the things he needs to be doing on a daily basis."
The final stage of Q School is set for November 29 to December 1 at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, FL, where the top finishers will earn their full-time status on the PGA Tour in 2010.
– story by Preston Davis