Marcus James Smith is a midnight putter. It’s just part of the reason the Olson Park School second-grader won seven junior golf tournaments this summer and is headed to the PGA Golf Club Invitational in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as the 13th-ranked 7-year-old player in the world.

 

Marcus James Smith is a midnight putter.

It’s just part of the reason the Olson Park School second-grader won seven junior golf tournaments this summer and is headed to this weekend’s inaugural PGA Golf Club Invitational in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as the 13th-ranked 7-year-old player in the world.

“In the last tournament he played, he putted really well and I asked him what he had done,” his father, Marcus, said. “He said, ‘Oh, I got up at night and practiced putting.’ He just does things like that.”

Marcus Smith said his son showed a talent for the game from the first time he picked up a club.

“He was about 3 and my dad and I were hitting some balls, and he was getting in the way, trying to grab my club and so on,” he said. “My dad said, ‘Why don’t you just give him a club and let him hit?’

“So he took his first swing with an adult’s club and he hit it out there about 10 yards. We gave him some more balls, and pretty soon, we went into the store and bought him a kid’s club and he just kept hitting. He looked good from the very first swing — hit every single one.”

Smith and his wife, Tombi, moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Machesney Park a year later, and Marcus James was on the practice mats at the Golf Shack when longtime teaching pro Don Chavez got his first look at him.

“That was right before his fifth birthday,” Smith said, “and Don said he should have some lessons. Don gave him one lesson and told us about the Pepsi Little People’s Junior Golf Tournament in Quincy.”

Marcus James had been hitting on driving ranges for more than a year but had never actually been on a golf course before Smith took him to the 2007 Pepsi event, where he shot back-to-back 25s in two five-hole rounds to finish in a tie for sixth place with Manuel Rexach of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

They returned to the Quincy tournament last year and Marcus James shot a pair of 34s for nine-hole rounds to finish in a five-way tie for sixth.

“It was fine,” Marcus James said. “I thought I would do all right.”

The lessons continued and Marcus James began this year’s season by shooting 38 and 41 for nine-hole rounds to win his age division in the Illinois Junior Golf Association’s DuPage Classic May 15-16 at Green Meadows Golf Club.

In the next 13 weeks, he entered six nine-hole U.S. Kids Golf Association tournaments, taking age-division firsts in five and second in the other. He also played several IJGA tournaments and finished no lower than fourth.

He finished his Illinois season with a six-stroke victory in his division of the IJGA’s Illinois Stars and Stripes Junior Classic played Sept. 5 at St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club in West Chicago. Par for the nine-hole event was 36. Marcus James shot 33.

“I sit in the car and tell myself ‘I’m the best, I’m the best,’ ” Marcus James said. “I tell myself that I’m going to win. I don’t say it to anyone else, just to myself.”

Chavez said Marcus James not only practices putting, he also has the will to work on short-game shots “where some young kids, all they want to do is just bang the ball.

“He keeps the club on the correct swing plane, which is important in the golf swing. We emphasize the takeaway, and at the top of the swing, his hands are just about perfect. The club is square to the target line. Then, we emphasize balance in the finish of the swing and he responds. He listens and he’s learning to play by feel, which is what you want rather than to get too mechanical.”

Marcus James will be old enough to enter Rockford tournaments after he turns 8 on May 31 and is looking forward to playing close to home at least once a summer.

In the meantime, he’ll continue to sleep with his scorecards under his pillow and idolize Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Camilo Villegas. And he’ll continue late-night putting.

“Dad can’t stop me from putting,” he said. “I’ll putt for hours at a time.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815 ) 987-1382 or mdedoncker@rrstar.com.

Marcus James Smith's U.S. Kids golf scores

(9-hole scores)   June 27: 1st at Boone Creek Golf Club, McHenry, 37   June 29: 1st at Bittersweet Golf Club, Gurnee, 40   July 7: 2nd at Sanctuary Golf Club, New Lenox, 37   July 13: 1st at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, Lemont, 35   July 15: 1st at Sportsman’s Country Club, Northbrook, 35   Aug. 13: 1st at Balmoral Woods Country Club, Crete, 38   Source: uskidsgolf.com