U.S. MID-AMATEUR: Nathan Smith’s well-earned fourth title sets a record

Pittsburgh’s Nathan Smith made U.S. golf history Thursday en route to earning another coveted invitation to next April’s Masters tournament.

Smith became the first four-time winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur – the national championship for players 25 and over — with a tense victory over Canadian Garrett Rank in the 36-hole final at Conway Farms, in Lake Forest.

“I gutted it out. I don’t know how I did it,’’ said Smith. “It’s pretty surreal to do something that no one else has done.’’

Rank, who hoped to become the 32-year-old tourney’s youngest champion and first foreign winner, found himself 3-down twice before winning three straight holes to pull even on the 33rd.

Two holes later, however, the match swung to Smith for good when Rank stubbed a difficult chip shot from green-side rough. Rank, who turned 25 three days before the tournament, had already conceded Smith a par putt when his chip rolled past the cup and down a steep slope on the green. He was left with a 30-foot putt to halve the hole but couldn’t get it to drop.

“It was a bad chip,’’ said Rank, who works as a referee in the Ontario Hockey League. “My lie was dicey, but I had momentum and was feeling good so I went for it.’’

Both players parred No. 18, Rank missing a 15-footer that would have sent the match to extra holes.

Smith became the 16th player to win the same U.S. Golf Assn. national championship four times. His other wins were in 2003, 2009 and 2010, but Thursday’s was the most difficult.

His first title came after his opponent in the finals withdrew because of injury and Smith was 7-up in his other two title matches when his foe was closed out. His latest win broke a tie with another Pennsylvania golfer, Jay Sigel, who won the Mid-Am three times between 1983 and 1987.