The Next Big Shot

The Next Big Shot

By Dr. John Huang

(NICHOLASVILLE, Ky.) – Scott Smith walks triumphantly off the 18th green of The Champions course at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. His smile says it all. The affable 64-year-old dentist from Pikeville, and a big UK sports fan, has just fulfilled a once-in-a-lifetime dream by playing in his first professional golf tournament.

Although the pro-am portion of the 2021 Barbasol Championships isn’t technically part of the official Thursday through Sunday rounds, Scott realizes this will be as close as he ever gets to experiencing PGA glory firsthand. He and his playing partner, Gary Brown—a Paintsville dentist—have just spent the last six hours in paradise, crushing towering drives, sinking crucial putts, and hobnobbing and trading strokes and jokes with comedian Scott Henry and tour professionals Joseph Bramlett and Greg Chalmers.

Barbasol Championship Pro-AM “A” Team pictured left to right: Gary Brown, Scott Smith, Joseph Bramlett (pro), Scott Henry (comedian), and Silvio Dalessandri. Not pictured: Greg Chalmers (pro). (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

For a man whose passion for golf can’t be overstated, this ethereal experience is as close to heaven on earth as Scott can imagine. His wife, Jenny, jokingly told me that Scott’s long-term goal was simply to retire with just enough money so that he could play golf the rest of his life. For George Scott Smith and other serious golf junkies, that’s the best and only reason for growing your 401K.

If you think, however, that is just another ordinary run-of-the-mill, feel-good golf story, then think again. Because life is fragile for all of us, especially right now for Scott and Jenny. Just a week before this past Christmas, the couple received the medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. A CT scan had revealed a tumor on Scott’s pancreas that subsequently metastasized to his liver. The prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is understandably dire. Without treatment, the experts tell Scott that he has six months to a year and a half to live. Even with appropriate chemotherapy, the average life expectancy only stretches out to about three years.

Sadly, those of us who have been around for a while are all too familiar with stories of family members and friends unfairly stricken down in their prime. In those moments, life can feel overwhelming—like an inopportune slice, or more appropriately, like one big shank. If we’re honest, we’ve all given thought to how we ourselves might react when confronted with our own mortality. Would we cower in fear, fall apart, and shake our fist at God and cry out, “Why me?”

“The emotions are incredible,” Scott recalled, when explaining how he felt when the doctor delivered the news. “The first thing you think of is your children and your wife—how they are going to be and how you’re going to leave them. You also think about what you’re going to be going through and how this can be possible. I was a healthy individual who did basically everything. I snow skied, I played racquetball, and I played golf, so how can I be sick? That’s almost incomprehensible.”

Boyhood Dreams

Scott, a father of two grown boys, was born in Pikeville to a homemaker mom and a dad who owned a Chevron gas station. He pumped gas at the station beginning when he was twelve and quickly realized he didn’t want to do that for the next fifty years. While most of his teenage friends at the time had unrealistic dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Scott knew exactly where his career was headed.

“I went to the dentist when I was in the 8th grade,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘This is great. I love this. I think this would be something I’d be interested in doing.’ And believe it or not, I ended up doing it. How many people in the 8th grade think they know what they want to do and end up actually doing it? That’s pretty unusual.”

Here’s what else was unusual. Scott was an exceptional athlete in high school. He played in four different sports—basketball, football, track, and baseball—which all sent teams to the state tournament. When it came time to pick a college, he was accepted into West Point but turned down the prestigious military academy because he knew he wanted to go to dental school. Four years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky followed by an additional four years at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (Class of ’84), and those prescient, 8th-grader plans for a career in dentistry suddenly materialized into reality.

Returning to his Pikeville roots, Scott started his hometown dental practice from scratch. Thirty-six years later, he was still practicing full time—up until the fateful cancer diagnosis—providing much-needed dental care for the good citizens of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. During many of those three decades, Scott worked tirelessly in his office from Monday morning until Thursday at noon. Then it was off to the local links for the rest of the extended weekend to focus on his ultimate passion—playing golf.

Passionate Beginnings

That passion started early on. Scott remembers asking for a set of clubs for Christmas when he was about twelve years old.

“Neither of my parents knew much about golf,” he said. “They got me a five iron. That was it. They bought me a single club.”

The Smith family didn’t belong to the highfalutin country club when Scott was growing up either. They had to drive thirty miles to Jenny Wiley State Park in order to play. Scott piddled around with his clubs in high school but didn’t really play seriously until he got to UK, where he finally had access to several quality golf courses.

When asked what about the game got him so hooked, the overachiever in Scott became readily apparent.

“It’s so competitive, and yet you can play by yourself,” he admitted. “You’re always trying to beat par. It’s something that you can never achieve perfection with. There is no such thing. That just enthralled me. There is no finish line.”

“I go to bed thinking about golf.” (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Warning signs

The worrisome symptoms began last summer with occasional bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Hoping it was all just diet related, Scott put off seeing a doctor thinking the discomfort would eventually pass. When the home remedies didn’t work and the digestive problems started escalating, Jenny finally convinced him to seek medical advice.

“Two days after I had my scan done, my family physician called me,” Scott recounted. “He said, ‘I need to see you in the office first thing on Monday morning.’”

Scott and Jenny knew the news would not be good. Two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, they were in Baltimore seeing a specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical. With five additional malignant spots on his liver, Scott’s condition was deemed inoperable, and he was sent back to Lexington for a clinical trial at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.

For the spouse and other loved ones, the cancer treatment experience can be surreal. Actually it’s more like a living hell—often more so for the spouse than for the one who is actually ill. Listening to Jenny describe the agonizing six weeks of the pulverizing nature of the clinical trial is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most calloused eye. Seeing your loved one—once so vibrant, active, and full of life—endure brutal cycles of unending malaise, nausea and vomiting, brain fog, and radical weight loss zaps you to the core of your very own existence. Your mind can go to some pretty dark places during those times.

However, just when things appeared hopeless, there came a small ray of sunshine. Out of the blue, Scott received an unexpected surprise.

Augusta Here We Come!

It’s often deemed the toughest ticket in sports. People wanting to witness the beauty and pageantry of Augusta National often wait decades before getting a fleeting chance to buy those golden tickets. Miraculously, Scott was there to witness The Masters with his own eyes in April of this year. How, you ask?

“Some buddies from my college Sigma Chi fraternity all got together and did that for me,” Scott answered. “They got me the entry tickets. They even provided a house for my family. I got to take both of my boys. I got to go with Jenny. One day I got to go with Jenny’s son, Evan. It was unreal. That is something I would never do for myself. It’s something I dreamed of but would never pull the trigger on myself.”

For Scott, watching the best players in the world play up close and personal was a fascinating experience. With Covid protocols still in place, attendance was limited, so the lucky patrons on the golf course could literally rub elbows with all the players. Television coverage also doesn’t do the course justice—especially the dramatic elevation changes. Because it’s so hilly, Scott had no choice but to ride around in a scooter (a motorized wheelchair) in his weakened state.

A memorable moment occurred when Scott and a fellow scooter rider struck up a conversation. The other man was missing both his feet. After sharing their stories, Scott discovers the man had his feet amputated because of diabetes.

“He told me he liked Chips Ahoy cookies more than his feet,” Scott said. “We then joked about racing around the course in our carts.”

The man happened to be the father of Bryson DeChambeau—the winner of the 2020 US Open. How cool was that?

Jenny describes the entire Masters experience differently. Scott felt sick most of the time. For Jenny, it was hauntingly bittersweet: an opportunity of a lifetime tempered by the specter of a sick spouse, a ticking time clock, and a terminal illness. We get it. How could anyone fully appreciate the azaleas in bloom, Amen Corner, and the iconic pimiento cheese sandwiches at a time like this?

Another Bucket List Opportunity

After six weeks of the merciless clinical trial, a new CT scan indicated a 30-percent shrinkage of the pancreatic tumor. Unfortunately, additional lesions had metastasized to the liver, so Scott was kicked out of the experimental group.

He’s now back on a standard chemotherapeutic regimen for pancreatic cancer. He’s completed three rounds so far and is scheduled for three more rounds every other Tuesday. Then they’ll do another CT scan to determine how effective the treatment has been.

Luckily, this pro-am Wednesday fell squarely between chemo treatments, and Scott was feeling fairly spry. He’s put on some much-needed weight and doesn’t feel tired all the time like he did at Augusta. Never one to seek the spotlight, he was worried about how this feature story would unfold. But how he ended up here at the Barbasol is the one tale he eagerly wanted to tell.

“The guys at my golf club back home all got together and pitched in and knew that this would be a bucket list thing for me to participate in something like this,” Scott explained. “And literally they all got in and chipped in and paid for my entry fee.”

The guys he’s talking about belong to the Green Meadow Country Club in Pikeville. And although the $7500 pairing fee is significant, it’s not just the monetary amount that makes Scott so appreciative. It’s the act of friendship that speaks volumes to him. Gary Brown, his former dental school classmate and playing partner today, had called the guys at the country club to set the wheels in motion.

“When they first told me I would be playing in the Barbasol, I thought for sure they were pulling a joke on me,” Scott reluctantly admitted. “Then when I found out that it was true, I just was overwhelmed. The thought of friendship that deep is pretty amazing. It’s something that I would never do for myself. For me to do this on my own, I would feel like it’s very selfish and ridiculous. But for something they would do for me, it just blows me away. Absolutely makes me weak.”

Scott Smith and Gary Brown, University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, Class of 1984 (Photo Credit John Huang)

Faith to the Rescue

What struck me most when speaking with Scott Smith was just how calm he’s been during this whole ordeal. There’s a peaceful countenance about him that’s hard for many to understand. It truly is a peace that surpasses all understanding. After all, who can grasp why tragedies like this happen to such good people? I asked Scott to explain it to me.

“I’m in a real good place in my mind as far as that goes,” he readily conceded. “Faith is huge and very important to me. I know that things happen for a reason and we’re all here for a certain amount of time. I feel really good about whatever’s coming. Truthfully, I’m okay with it.”

Not only is he okay with it, but Scott—who calls Southland Christian his church home—has never questioned these timeless spiritual mysteries. He’s never been one to wallow in self-pity or direct his anger towards his heavenly creator.

“Oddly enough not yet,” he pushed back. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. I haven’t been through the ‘why me’ and ‘this isn’t fair.’ I haven’t gone through those emotions. Maybe I will. I honestly don’t know why I’m in this situation. Just the cards you’re dealt. Everybody is on a different playing field. I remember telling Jenny years ago that I wanted to enjoy life and experience different things and different places with her. I said, ‘You never know when you might get hit by a bus.’ This may be my bus. So now we’re trying to do as many things as we can and experience as much as possible while we can.”

Jenny

The Barbasol Pro-Am certainly qualifies as one of those special experiences Scott talks about. One of the most exciting rounds of his life gets off to a bit of shaky start, but Scott soon finds his groove. A tricky five-foot putt for a birdie on eleven, an artistic chip out of the sand to within three feet of the cup on twelve, and Scott quickly settles into his element. It’s readily apparent to all that he’s played this game before.

Scott’s biggest fan is his lovely wife, Jenny. She walks the entire 18 holes—a six-and-a-half-hour marathon round under the blazing afternoon sun—silently screaming for her husband’s ball to find every fairway, to gently plop on every green, and to get in every hole. She knows how much this day means to Scott.

The two met on a blind date, and about a year-and-a-half later they were married. It’s been wedded bliss for the couple for the past ten years—until the bus arrived.

It’s been a helluva bus ride for Jenny this past year also. She lost her mom, had another dear friend die unexpectedly, watched another family member battle colon cancer…and now this. I look at her radiant smile, and I wonder how she does it. I need to know. I ask her about it point blank.

“I often sense God’s presence, and sometimes I really think he speaks to me,” she answered unhesitantly. “He said, ‘I chose you to be with Scott, during this time of his life.’”

Devout faith, divine guidance, unconditional love…we should all be so lucky.

Scott and Jenny Smith. (Photo Credit John Huang)

Scott

He’s exhausted but exhilarated. Who wouldn’t be after playing with a couple of tour professionals, of having your name announced on the first tee, and of seeing the skyboxes surrounding the greens and cameras everywhere?

I asked Scott what stood out to him the most.

“My great appreciation goes out to my Green Meadow Country Club pals who made everything possible with their generosity,” he said. “[Also] sharing the experience with my wife. Having my two boys, Max and Hunter, surprise me by being there. They saw me facing the final hole. My tee shot over the lake, crossed safely, even landing on the green. I knew God was looking over me. I felt blessed to have such a great experience. Thank you, Lord!”

Scott Smith and sons, Hunter and Max. (Photo Credit Jenny Smith)

There are a lot of parallels between golf and life. The more time you have, the better you get at both. For most people, it takes patience, resolve, and a heavy dose of wisdom to navigate both courses successfully. Occasionally for people like Scott, the two worlds intersect to provide valuable life lessons for finishing strong.

“The golf course has always been an outlet of peace and a place for me to go to forget about things,” Scott clarified. “You learn to concentrate on just your golf game and the next shot. I won’t know what my next shot will be until the next CT scan comes out. But that’s the way I look at it. That’ll be my next shot. It’ll let us know what road we’re headed down, what fairway we’re in, or if we hit the green or not, or if we’re in the sand trap.”

Scott holds it together until the end of our visit when the talk circles back to his mortality and his time left on earth. He wants to say something to the people he’ll leave behind. His thoughts appear to scramble as he struggles to find the right words.

“Take care of Jenny,” he finally blurts out, his eyes overflowing with tears. “She’s been incredible. To take care of her. That would be the thing that I would hope the most for. She’s taken care of me. And I knew she could, and I knew she would. But to see her doing what she’s doing—it’s pretty amazing.”

If God hands out mulligans in life, I’ll ask for one right here. Prayers up! Stop the bus. It’s time for the next big shot.

Scott Smith with his next big shot. (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. He covers University of Kentucky and professional sports for Nolan Group Media, Sports View America, and JustTheCats.com. His book “Cut To The Chase” is now available on amazon. His newest release, “Kentucky Passion—Wildcat Wisdom and Inspiration,” is scheduled for October (IU Press).

Returning to Holy Ground

Returning to Holy Ground

This morning, I attended in-person services at church for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown back in March. I’ll confess, it’s not the longest time I’ve been away. There have been many consecutive Sunday mornings in the past where I just decided to sleep in. There have also been times during UK Basketball season where I’ve disappeared for a few months at a time. And oh yeah, there was that decade and a half in my 20s and 30s where I didn’t go at all. But by and large—at least for the past quarter of a century—going to church on Sundays and visiting with my Centenary church family has been a pretty big deal.

So, I was excited when Centenary announced their plans to restart their on-site Sunday services on Father’s Day. In fact, I was so pumped for the re-opening that I wanted to be first in line. Here’s what it was like returning to Holy Ground.

Okay, I’d be lying (and it’s never a good idea to lie, especially while in church) if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit hesitant about coming back so quickly. As much as I hate to admit it—morbidity wise—I’m approaching that vulnerable age group deemed by the CDC to be the most susceptible to the virus.

But I figured there’ll never be a safer time to return than right now. Strict sanitation standards will surely be implemented, social distancing requirements will be rigorously enforced, and everybody present will be on high alert against coughing, sneezing, or touching their face (or anybody else’s face for that matter). Everybody has their guard up. No one wants to be the church that screws it up for everyone else.

The single church service begins at 10:30, and we’ve been told to arrive about 30 minutes early. There’s minimal traffic this morning, so I pull into the noticeably-less-than-full parking lot at just after 10. Immediately, I sense that something’s just a bit off kilter—it’s eerily quiet and a bit awkward as we all march up towards the single front entrance. After such a long absence away, we’re not quite sure how to greet each other—especially behind the veil of our protective masks.

It’s a bit surreal (I promise I won’t use that word again) walking into the building. I grab a dollop of hand sanitizer, receive my pre-packaged communion elements, and resist the temptation to violate everyone’s 6-ft bubble by shaking hands and dispensing hugs as I usually would.

Entering the front doors, I notice the narthex has been completely transformed. Gone is the comfortable seating, the free coffee, and the lively conversational cliques we’re so used to seeing on Sunday mornings. There’s no handshaking, no backslapping, no bragging about the golf game or the recent trip to Alaska. The message has been received LOUD and CLEAR: Come, worship, leave—DO NOT CONGREGATE!

It’s even more sterile within the sanctuary. The abundance of plexiglass and the roped off pews gives off a definite public vibe—as if I’m waiting in line at the post office to mail a package. The hundred-plus worshippers this morning are seated every third pew, three to a pew, with much more than the required distance of separation in between them.

The choir is noticeably absent, as are the usual number of kids and youth milling about. In fact, I’m a bit surprised at the disproportionate number of older folks like me who are filling the pews. Don’t they realize their life is in danger? I take a moment to chit chat with some familiar faces, exchange pleasantries and wave to those making eye contact, and remain poised for the sermon ahead.

The sermon by Pastor James is a good one. He talks about how God’s plans for our life are often different from our own life plans. God has a road map lined out for you, but it’s often not placed directly in front of your face. Our continued obedience and faith in God will eventually draw us close enough to view the map clearly. In the meantime, stand firm and keep trusting.

After Communion in the pews and a poignant benediction, we’re punctually dismissed. Like good soldiers committed to following Governor Andy’s rules, we file directly out of the church, into our cars, and back to our pets waiting expectantly for us at home.

Reading this narrative, you might guess I was disappointed by my lack of a familiar church experience. I mean if you have to wear face coverings, can’t hug anybody, have to sit by yourself, can’t attend Sunday school classes, and are discouraged from congregating, drinking coffee, and socializing with friends—then why come at all? Sure, the sermon was fantastic, but I could have watched it online—naked and unmasked—from the comfort of my bed.

And yet, there was something ethereal about the entire experience. It wasn’t just the taking of Communion either. Honestly, there really is a heavenly power at work when like-minded believers gather together in worship.

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Paul was talking about the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the lives and bodies of the early Christians. For us present-day believers, as the world around us seems to be crumbling, it’s easy to forget the power that already resides within us—that same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. For me, being back together in worship this morning under one roof was a much-needed reminder of the sovereignty and dominion of God.

The good Lord designed us for relationships—affinity for Him, and connection with each other. Throughout my Christian walk, I’ve prayed until I’m blue in the face, I’ve memorized Scripture ad nauseum, I’ve listened to sermons galore. And yet, the greatest inspiration for my faith journey to date has always been the presence of other like-minded pilgrims on the same path as me. I know there’s more to genuine relationships than face-to-face interactions, but in our temporary world of quarantine and self-isolation, that presence together this morning rekindled a flickering flame.

It’s hard for me to describe the power of Christian community. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Even as I try to explain it to you, it’s a heck of a lot better if you experience it for yourself.

To God be the glory!

See you next Sunday!

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley just did something that has never been done. The Wildcats’ sophomore guard just won his second straight SEC Player of the Week award. Immanuel’s numbers on the court this season have been supremely impressive. But it’s his faith-based leadership among his teammates that will have far more eternal significance. Here’s a sneak preview of my upcoming column appearing in the Nolan Media Group newspapers later this week.

 

Immanuel Quickley prepares faith-driven Wildcat team for postseason success

By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When asked what he likes about this year’s team, Coach John Calipari was quick to point out his talented backcourt trio. “I like that we’re playing three point guards,” said Kentucky’s hall of fame coach.

Although Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey may eventually lead Calipari’s team to another coveted national championship, there’s another trio of Wildcats who will ultimately guide them into the sacred Promised Land.

When it comes to spirituality on Kentucky Wildcat basketball teams, I don’t recall a more outwardly vocal trinity than Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, and Keion Brooks. The three are part of eight scholarship players this year who are rapidly capturing the hearts of BBN.

We’re all familiar with Quickley’s story. The sophomore guard from Havre De Grace, Maryland has stated on numerous occasions how important his faith has been to him. A devout upbringing, an active church life, and studying God’s Word have been the hallmarks of his early life of piety.

“I started putting God first,” Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’—told us at a recent media session.

That means getting up early and starting off each day with a daily devotional. Having glided through the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, and now on to the Book of Isaiah, the Wildcats’ most consistent player appears poised to finish out this season with some pretty God-sized biblical accomplishments.

“Honestly, I know why I read the Bible,” he explained. “I think just starting from the beginning and trying to read it to the end like it’s a regular book—it gives me something to look forward to. Instead of just reading random stuff, I keep building and having something to go back to.”

Immanuel’s dedication to God’s Word has not been lost on Nate Sestina, his traveling roommate on road trips. The two have developed a special bond, occasionally even delving into some deep spiritual discussions. Taking after Immanuel’s lead, the graduate transfer from Bucknell has faithfully relied on Scripture in his attempt to bolster confidence in himself.

“I follow this Bible verse very closely,” Nate shared with me after a recent practice session. “It’s Proverbs 16:3—’Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he shall establish your plans.’ I’ve actually talked to Immanuel about it. So, he likes it a lot too. But, just believing that whatever I do, that God’s got me.”

Keion Brooks is another Wildcat who’s not afraid to talk openly about his Christian faith.

“It’s extremely important to me,” the 6’7 freshman from Ft. Wayne, Indiana has admitted on several occasions. “It’s a big part of who I am.”

Brooks, when speaking to reporters, often appears reticent and shy. But he was bold and confident when talking about the gratitude and contentment stemming directly from his biblical beliefs.

“God has blessed me with being able to be here to wake up every day,” he said with an unmistakable look of serenity. “Being able to be a part of this great program. Being able to meet so many great people throughout this world. Just blessing me with the talent to play basketball. Basketball has taken me all over the place, all over the country. I just want to pay my dues back to Him because He’s just put me in a great place with a great family and support system to do some phenomenal things. So I just got to make sure I do my part to play hard and continue to believe in Him.”

When John Calipari tells us over and over that these are good kids, it’s not just coach speak. From what I’ve gleaned, this year’s crew consists of a bunch of really GREAT kids—kids that know their roles, kids that are fully aware of their exalted status as Kentucky Basketball players, and kids who will hopefully bring the Wildcats another national championship.

As Immanuel Quickley is learning in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.”

I’m not sure whether God is necessarily a University of Kentucky Basketball fan or not. But it sure can’t hurt that Immanuel Quickley–whose Twitter handle just happens to be @IQ_GodSon–obviously has his priorities in the right place. Whether on the basketball court or in the arena of eternal life, you can be certain that @IQ_GodSon is getting everyone ready for the day of reckoning.

I’m ready. Are you?

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs