Professional golfer Jesse Smith had never seen a Rochester Knighthawks game until May 19, 2012. Of all the games to attend, Smith witnessed the franchise’s first National Lacrosse League Championship on home turf in the club’s 18-year history. “Before the (golf) season started last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Championship Game,” said Smith. “It was one of the best sporting events I have ever been to.” The Knighthawks celebrated a 9-6 victory over the Edmonton Rush that evening, rallying from 5-1 down at halftime. Smith, whose second cousin Sid Smith plays for the Knighthawks, had the opportunity recently to play 18 holes of golf with three members of the defending NLL Champions in West Palm Beach.
Smith hit the links with Knighthawks Owner and General Manager Curt Styres, Stephen Keogh and Casey Powell. On Monday, the foursome played the par-70 Ocean Course, which challenges golfers with its sandy hazards, elevated putting greens and deeply-recessed bunkers.
“It was great. We played my club, The Breakers Resort, and had a great time. Jesse is an unbelievable golfer and made us feel really bad about our own games,” said Powell in jest. “He was just a lot of fun to watch. He was one of the best golfers I have ever played with. He gave us tips throughout the day and we certainly encouraged free advice.”
Powell will make his return to the NLL in 2013 after taking a season off to get his family settled in Florida, where he is the Director of Lacrosse Programs at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton. Keogh, who enters his second season in the NLL, has moved down to Florida this offseason to assist Powell with camps. His itinerary also includes more time on the golf course. Smith had some kind words for the lacrosse players’ golf skills.
“We had a great time out there,” he said. “They can work on a little bit more consistency, but there were a number of good shots out there. We had some good laughs.”
The group admitted they did not keep score, but Powell and Keogh noted that Styres’ birdie on No. 5 was most impressive. The day on the course was also a thrill for Smith, who enters his second season with the NLL team as his primary sponsor.
“I had the privilege of carrying the Knighthawks’ bag last year on the Canadian Tour,” said the nine-year golf pro. “I represented the franchise for most of the summer. It was pretty neat representing the team out there on the Tour.
“I think just being around champions gives you motivation and helps you develop confidence just by being around that and seeing that,” he added. “Then to carry the bag immediately after that on tour was a special thing.”
This year, Smith will play in the PGA Tour of Canada and represent the Knighthawks for the 2013 season. Smith, who was born in Dover, NH, has reconnected with his Six Nations roots over the past decade. Once a place to visit as a kid, Smith now calls it his home base.
Smith began his trips back to Southern Ontario after his father passed away when he was 16 years old. His father was somewhat of a sports celebrity in the New England area. After playing junior hockey with the Ottawa 67’s, he starred for the University of New Hampshire before playing in the World Hockey Association.
Guy Smith was an original member of the New England Whalers organization, which would eventually become the Hartford franchise of the National Hockey League. Smith played the first three years, and in the team’s inaugural season he won the WHA Championship to cap off the 1972-73 season.
Jesse played hockey as well as a kid, and played baseball in New Hampshire. Golf was a longshot until he walked onto the Colgate University golf team. It was with the Red Raiders that he excelled at the sport for four seasons and earned the status of team captain.
“I decided after my senior year I had the opportunity to go and play professionally,” he said. “My journey in golf has been through trial and error. I had to start from scratch. I worked my way up through the ranks. I didn’t make it through the PGA Tour qualifying this year, so I will be playing the PGA Tour of Canada next year. I still think that’s a good thing. I am excited to get back up there.”
The 33-year-old, who began his career later than most golf pros, has made many sacrifices along the way, which included quitting golf for a six-month period. He even worked at a New Jersey golf club for $10 an hour before getting back in the game.
Last season his hard work and dedication paid off, as he made five of the eight cuts and earned enough to keep full status/full membership for 2013. He recently moved to Orlando to play on the Bridgestone Winter Series, which is a 12-event tour. So far, he has made three of four cuts, tying for second, fifth and 11th. He will base himself in Florida for the winter months as he tries to qualify for the US PGA Tour. In light of his recent success, he made sure today to thank his golf partner and family friend, Curt Styres.
“His cousin Mark (Styres) was my father’s cousin and I am close with Mark’s kids. I guess our families are intertwined,” said Smith, who has known Curt for many years. The Dreamcatcher Fund helped me out for years with my schooling and golf. I am very thankful for that. Curt has been very generous to help me this summer to keep the dream alive.”
Styres and his business partners at Grand River Enterprises established the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation in 2004. The Foundation provides life-changing opportunities to Aboriginal People through financial grants.
“The Dreamcatcher Fund lets me be part of a young person’s success. A lot of people just need the opportunity,” said Styres. “What we try to do is create the opportunity and let the path lead them where they need to go.”
Today in West Palm Beach, Smith had a chance to thank Curt and take in that long-awaited round of golf.
“We had the chance to play golf today for the first time,” said Smith. “I joked that we had to go a couple thousand miles away to play golf together.”
It was also one last chance for Styres and the players to relax before the NLL season begins this weekend with the Knighthawks kicking off Training Camp. The weekend signals the start of a seven-month lacrosse season that ends in May.
“It’s great to hang out with Curt on a personal level before we head into battle. It’s good to chill out prior to the start of the season,” said Powell. “It’s a pretty long grind in terms of travel and playing. I am certainly looking forward to playing indoor lacrosse and feel pretty fortunate to have the opportunity to play for the defending champs. I am excited for the season.”
“I am really excited to get the stick back in my hands and get together with the guys again at training camp,” added Keogh. “Everybody I have talked to is fired up so it should be a good weekend. Curt is a great guy, so it was nice to play golf with him.”
Smith, who will relocate back to Six Nations in the spring, also cannot wait to get back to the arena.
“I got the bug last year at the Championship Game so I will definitely be up there for some games this year,” he said.Rybczynski currently works as the play-by-play broadcaster and Vice President of Communications for the National Lacrosse League’s Rochester Knighthawks.
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