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Former Turlock golfer steps up his game after year in college
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Suddenly, it got serious.

Not that he didn't take the sport of golf seriously before, but when Sam Smith was playing for Turlock High, he was usually the best player on the golf course. He was the one the other golfers aspired to be, the one that people followed while he was carrying his equipment to the next hole.

It's just that when he started competing for the University of Southern California men's golf program last fall, he realized something.

“I'm playing with guys just as good as me,” he said. “And some are better.”

It's not like he had a bad freshman year, either. He contributed immediately, playing in nine events (including the NCAA Championships), finishing 28th at the Gifford Collegiate at CordeValle, where he shot his lowest round of 70, and tying for 24th at the NCAA Regional in Bremerton, Wash. He's on a roster full of players who have their names in some of the nation's most prestigious amateur tournaments, and a lot of them will undoubtedly turn pro.

Smith hopes he'll be one of them.

He took the time to reflect recently, taking a break from his month-long vacation in Turlock with his family. This was a few weeks after he made the U.S. Open Section Qualifier in Sacramento, just missing the cut.

He remembers the good days at Turlock High, where he was a four-time Central California Conference MVP, where he pulled together an impressive junior season in which he was ranked the No. 1 prep golfer in California, where he tied fifth at the CIF State Championships in 2008 and where he was coached under Ben Culala, who appreciated having someone like Smith around and once called him the greatest golfer in Turlock High history.

He also won the 2007 NCGA Junior Championship, to name one accolade he achieved outside of high school.

These days, Smith is more focused than ever. He practices on his golf technique and swings almost every day. And lately, he's been out at Stevinson Ranch fine-tuning his craft.

“I feel like I'm a lot (smarter) on the golf course,” Smith said.

In other words, he's evolving. Again, he wants to turn pro — and no one doubts that he eventually can't.

At Turlock High, he left behind a tremendous legacy. It's one that his younger brother, Paul, is reminded of every time he steps on a golf course. But he's gradually separating himself, as he won the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters during his junior run, before he went on to the NorCal Championships and played an impressive round.

Paul is working on separating himself, as he's looking to land a scholarship with another Pac-10 program. That way, he can compete with his brother in about a year or so.

For Sam, he's continuing to increase his focus and seriousness.

To contact Chhun Sun, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2041.