Smith traveled a rocky road after the disqualification in 1996.
It was a pet phrase of Taylor Smith's, one he sprinkled throughout most conversations like powdered sugar on a doughnut, as constant as the accent that pegged his south Georgia roots. Regardless of the topic, Smith often would interject, "Can you believe it?"
"I probably heard Taylor say that 100 times," recalled Blake Baker, an assistant pro at Houston CC, where Taylor had worked as a caddie in recent years. "Anytime you talked with him, that's what he'd say."
After Smith's unexpected death at age 40, July 21 at his Texas home, people have been thinking what the former tour pro -- a memorable footnote to history by his disqualification from the 1996 Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, for an illegal grip on his long putter -- so often said. "It was a tremendous shock to all of us," said Smith's father, J.L. "I was out playing golf with some buddies. My preacher came and got me. Taylor had a severe attack of pancreatitis three years ago and subsequently had some seizures from time to time. Not having the official [autopsy] results yet, we feel like he had a seizure in the middle of the night."
Smith had been a regular caddie at Houston CC for a couple of years through 2006, respected by caddies and members who well knew of his background as a tour player. "Sometimes when he was caddieing," said Baker, "he'd get real pale and go in and grab a snack and then be fine. Some of the members thought he was a diabetic, but when they asked him, he would say no."
Baker hadn't seen Smith in 2007 until the week before he died. "He came out and did a couple of loops," said Baker. "I said, 'Taylor, where have you been?' He was excited, saying that he had been working on his game. He was supposed to have been playing in a few tournaments but felt his game wasn't ready. I got his address so I could send him an invitation to my wedding. It's just sad."
There were smiles with the tears at Smith's funeral in his hometown of Waycross, Ga., last Friday. Mourners remembered the fun-loving jokester who liked to make dinner reservations under the name "Ballesteros" and revel in the reactions "when the 6-foot-3 blond Spaniard" walked to his table. They recalled his kindness to children (after making an ace in New Orleans in 1996, he gave the 7-iron he struck it with to a young fan en route to the next hole). And they mentioned that infamous Sunday later that year near the Magic Kingdom.
Smith, the 54-hole leader, was using a long putter with two grips, the bottom one with a flat side in violation of USGA rules. Fellow competitor Lennie Clements noticed the grip and alerted tour officials on the ninth hole. Smith completed the round, making a birdie on the 18th hole to shoot 67 and force an apparent playoff with Tiger Woods. Smith's appeal was quickly denied. He was disqualified, and Woods had the second victory of his abbreviated rookie season.
"He was impressive, a talented player, the times I played with him," recalled Billy Andrade. "It's really unfortunate he didn't win at Disney. A player who has never won before, sure, that has an effect. After that, you didn't hear much about him. Very, very tragic."
Smith's final PGA Tour appearance was the 1998 Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, where he finished 71st; his last Nationwide Tour event came later that year. A lengthy story in this magazine in 2000 profiled Smith and highlighted the problems that went far deeper than his DQ at Disney. "You've got to lose something before you realize how good you had it," he told John Hawkins, who detailed Smith's rocky road of relationship woes and abuse of alcohol and prescription painkillers in the 1990s, the latter spawned by a painful ingrown toenail. No one will ever know how much the Disney situation bothered Smith. "I think it affected him a lot more than he let on," his father said last weekend. "Paul Azinger told Taylor he was going to win a whole bunch of times and not to worry about it, but I think it did bother him."
More recently, according to his father, Smith was trying to pave over the old disappointments and demons with fresh hopes. "He seemed to be doing great," said J.L. Smith. "He was headed in the right direction and [was] trying to refocus his life on his family and his golf. He had found himself two sponsors [last winter] and had been practicing real hard."
Smith's survivors include his wife, Shelly, daughters Patreece (14) and Layton (10) by a previous marriage and a promise he wasn't able to keep. "He called me a couple of years ago after caddieing in the pro-am at the Shell Houston Open," said his father. "He said, 'Dad, it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life.' He was caddieing in the group with David Toms. He and David had been friends over the years, and when he spoke to him, David felt a little uneasy. Taylor said he told him don't worry about me, 'I'm going to be back out here with you.' "