Tony Smith - funeral home director, part-time golf coach - set for U.S. Senior Open

The Fresno BeeJuly 9, 2014 

The old man was at it again, fiddling around with his golf game in between driving dead bodies and coaching teenagers the fundamentals of golf.

Fresno native Tony Smith is a full-time funeral home director, part-time coach for the Memorial High boys and girls golf teams and a semi-retired golfer who plays on occasion.

But just like five years ago when he focused on playing golf and unexpectedly qualified for a PGA Tour tournament, Smith picked up the game again recently and landed in this week's U.S. Senior Open.

"Looks like I've still got a few good rounds still in me," the 50-year-old said.

The U.S. Senior Open runs Thursday through Sunday in Edmond, Okla., with the field reduced to the top 60 after two rounds. The field of 156 includes former PGA Tour headliners Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara and Vijay Singh.

But unlike the majority of the field, Smith hasn't played golf regularly for years.

Smith does have a long golfing background to lean on, highlighted when he qualified for the Buick Invitational in 2009 as a 44-year-old PGA tournament rookie. Before that, he played professionally in a handful of Nationwide events and a few years on the Canadian Tour and other minor tours.

But Smith admits that his career as a touring pro never gained much traction. He's never worked as a club pro or instructor like other U.S. Senior Open qualifiers, either. And when Smith coaches the Memorial golfers, he spends much of his time patiently teaching rudimentary fundamentals.

"I really don't play or practice much," Smith said. "For two years, I didn't play once. I got back into it lately. But I play twice a week if I'm lucky."

Instead, Smith has spent the past six years helping run the family business: Sterling & Smith Funeral Home.

"I used to tell people that my neck was so sore from looking back, making sure the body wouldn't move," Smith said of driving a hearse. "Actually, my job is to help people accept death. Help them grieve, maybe be a counselor for them.

"When you deal with that every day, you do need an escape. I think that's why I started golfing again. It relaxes me."

Smith's calmness on the golf course is what helped him qualify for the U.S. Senior Open last month at Turlock Golf & Country Club.

Smith shot 2-under 70 and was confident that score could keep him amongst the top two spots from the field of 70 and qualify him for the U.S. Senior Open.

After 21/2 hours of waiting, Smith found out he was close to qualifying, but there was more golf to play.

Shawn McEntee of Napa shot a tournament-best 69 as part of one of the last groups to finish up and locked up one of the qualifying spots. That left Smith tied for second with three others going into a playoff for the final slot.

Smith and one other golfer survived the first playoff hole. Smith then hit par on the second playoff hole to win by a stroke and seize the other qualifying spot for the U.S. Senior Open.

"I've been dreaming about this my whole life," Smith said. "My dad is 88. He's a homebody, never likes to leave the house. I called him up and said 'Your son is going to play in the U.S. (Senior) Open.' And you know what he said to me? 'I'm coming.'

"It's like a dream come true."

Smith's famous niece, tennis pro Sloane Stephens, also is expected to attend and cheer on her uncle in Oklahoma.

Smith also will keep the same caddie he had during the qualifier, bringing recent Memorial graduate and golfer Conner Chuhlantseff to Oklahoma. Chuhlantseff was recently named to The Bee's honorable mention Golf all-star team.

"He just finished high school, but he's as good as some of those guys who've caddied for years," Smith said. "There were three putts in particular Conner helped me with that if I didn't listen to him, I might not have qualified. So, yeah, I'm keeping my caddie."

Smith has no expectations or goals at the U.S. Senior Open. He said he simply wants to represent his family, the Fresno golfing community and the Fresno community to the best of his abilities.

"Listen, I bury people for a living," Smith said. "So golf is just a game for me. It's fun for me, the type of fun you have when you're a little kid.

"I'm going in there to have the time of my life and work hard. Maybe see if we can reach for more stars."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6362, or @Banteola_TheBee on Twitter.

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