A perfect fit at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club

Third-generation assistant golf course superintendent Matt Smith is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.


Matt Smith
Matt Smith, assistant superintendent at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., is the latest in his family to have worked at the legendary facility. Photo by Ron Esposito

During the 1995 U.S. Open at famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., Matt Smith transported rolls of film from New York Times photographers to the newspaper’s tent so they could be uploaded.

It was pretty neat stuff at the time for a then-10-year-old like Smith. The cool factor at this historic location resonates with Smith, who grew up there. Now, as an assistant superintendent at Shinnecock Hills, Smith has come to realize just how much his family heritage is woven into the fiber there.

And it sure feels as if he is right where he belongs.

“I didn’t realize until I got older the greatness I was walking amongst here. It always has seemed everybody wanted to be here,” Smith says. “It really is the place to be.”

For decades, relatives of Smith have worked at Shinnecock Hills. His grandfather, Elmer, was superintendent as far back as the 1950s. Matt Smith’s uncle, Peter, was the superintendent who oversaw that 1995 U.S. Open, plus the one in 1986.

The Elmer F. and Peter E. Smith Apprentice Award was established by Shinnecock Hills to spotlight the professionalism they fostered as Shinnecock Hills took its place as one of the finest golf courses in the world. It has been the site of five U.S. Opens, most recently in 2018, and has been awarded another U.S. Open for 2026. The award aims to rekindle and strengthen the relationship between the Shinnecock Indian Nation and Shinnecock Hills GC that was firmly established by those two father/son agronomy professionals, and to provide the opportunity for members of the Shinnecock Nation to pursue a career in turfgrass management as a green superintendent.

To be considered for the award, the applicant must be a member of the Shinnecock Nation and reside within the boundaries of the Shinnecock Territory. Selection is based upon financial need, academic achievement, and personal and professional goals. Two reference letters from school representatives in support of the application must be submitted as part of the application.

The award provides up to $20,000 per year of financial support for the study of agronomy or turfgrass management. The funds may be applied toward the successful applicant’s tuition, board and books for a course of up to four years at an accredited college or university. In addition, the apprenticeship will provide a full-season (April to September) paid green internship prior to commencing college, providing the successful applicant with technical knowledge required prior to enrollment. Up to three additional seasonal paid green internships running concurrently with college are available. This ensures the successful applicant can learn to best apply the academic knowledge gained in the classroom in a practical and real-world environment.

Before he entered the world of golf course maintenance, Smith was trying to find his niche. That includes a decade in landscaping. He got his spray license and served as a crew foreman. When the man who bought him his first golf clubs — his father, Mike — had an inkling that a career in golf might suit him, Smith decided to make the career change. “At first, I was scared a little to switch my career,” Smith says, “but to be part of such a great, prestigious course as Shinnecock, it was a no-brainer.”

Smith was selected as an apprentice award recipient. He was brought on in June 2021 as an assistant-in-training for Jon Jennings, CGCS, at Shinnecock Hills. In January this year, Smith was elevated to assistant following his graduation in turfgrass management through Rutgers University. Everything about it felt right. Still does.

“The dew on the grass. The team. Everybody works together, coming together to push for a great playing surface,” says Smith, who became a GCSAA member in January. “It’s been great for me to lean on and have a mentor like Jon Jennings. I try to do the right things, pay attention. I’m just a sponge to take in all he (Jennings) has to offer. He’s a great leader, knows the game in and out.”

Jennings, a 38-year GCSAA member, says: “Matt has been a tremendous addition to our staff. He brings a background in landscaping and a keen eye for detail, allowing him to jump into our operation seamlessly. Being an avid golfer, having played with his father for many years, allowed Matt to understand the intricacies of golf course maintenance. Matt offers leadership and maturity in an approachable way that draws others to work with and be inspired by his example. I envision Matt as a leader within our industry and look forward to seeing him ascend into the position as a golf course superintendent. He is extremely passionate about the profession and drawn toward the beauty of the landscape and gratification of nurturing all of the areas that comprise a golf course.”

Smith continues to seek industry growth, which includes networking and learning. He volunteered at last year’s U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He plans to do the same thing this June in the U.S. Open at The Los Angeles Country Club. In February, he attended his first GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. “I met people there who know my grandfather. They told me stories about him that I never knew. It keeps his legacy alive,” Smith says.

His memories of Shinnecock Hills as a youth remain vivid — like chasing tadpoles, driving a go-kart that the club’s equipment manager fixed for him at an old driving range and swinging golf clubs with his dad. Smith envisions enjoying replicating those memories with his children. Mostly, he hopes he is setting an example for them and others.

 “Some days, I get chills out of nowhere. The doors they have opened here for me is such a blessing. When I think about it, it’s like, ‘Pinch me. Am I dreaming?’ I’m walking on one of the greatest playing fields in the United States,” Smith says. “This could be paving the way for my son and for those in the Nation who may want to take it on next. This is where my ancestors put in their blood, sweat and tears. We’ve always been people of the land. The wilderness. Deep down I’ve always known this was my calling. It feels good.”

Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor