Photo by Carson Field/Cronkite News

By Carson Field
Cronkite News

Alex Smalley walked onto the driving range at TPC Scottsdale with a smile on his face as he absorbed his new surroundings.

As he walked to his spot on the range, other professionals noticed him—someone younger than almost everyone else competing at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“Good luck, kid,” one pro said to the 23-year-old rookie. Smalley, still taking in the landscape, simply replied, “Thank you,” and smiled.

He had every reason to be in a good mood.

After shooting a 67 in Monday, January 27’s qualifier at McCormick Ranch Golf Club, Smalley secured one of the last three spots in the Phoenix Open. This marks his second PGA Tour start and his first as a professional.

“It’s really amazing,” Smalley says. “The Monday qualifier field was really strong. There were a lot of PGA Tour players out there, so it’s really cool.”

Among those who Smalley defeated were Robert Garrigus, Charlie Beljan and Jim Carter, all of whom previously won PGA events.

His journey to the Phoenix Open started long before January 27, however. Smalley has utilized every level of his career as a stepping stone to reach the next.

During his high school years in North Carolina, Smalley notched a spot in the REX Hospital Open, a Korn Ferry Tour (previously Web.com Tour) event played in Raleigh. At the tournament, he shot 5-over par and missed the cut.

While he didn’t make it to the weekend, that first appearance on the big stage paid dividends for Smalley’s mentality, according to his mother, Maria.

“It was a huge confidence booster,” Maria Smalley says. “At that point, he was like, ‘You know, I can play with these guys.’”

He then played collegiately at Duke University, where he was named a Ping All-America second-team selection. Smalley ended his career as the Blue Devils’ career scoring leader.

Smalley finished his collegiate career as one of the most accomplished golfers in Duke history. Still, his most notable accomplishment during that stretch came in 2017, when he qualified for the U.S. Open as an amateur.

Though Smalley missed the cut by two strokes, he finished a respectable 3-over par—ahead of seven of the world’s top-10 players at the time.

“It helped me tremendously,” Smalley says. “It just gave me the confidence to know that I can play out here with these guys who are the best in the world.”

Since graduating from Duke, Smalley has participated in the Palmer Cup and Walker Cup, showing his prowess in both amateur events.

He has since turned professional, earning a sponsorship with Ping. That’s how he ended up in the Valley. Smalley and his family originally planned to travel to the Phoenix area, where Ping is located, for a fitting and to get some new clubs.

Then it dawned on him.

Smalley realized he could potentially qualify for a PGA event if he scheduled his trip correctly.

And that he did.

“We thought, if we’re going to travel to Arizona, we may as well take care of both things,” Maria Smalley says. “It has been incredible and amazing.”

Now, Smalley has set his sights toward an atmosphere he’s never encountered: the raucous crowd at the Phoenix Open. Though he’s competed in other high-level events, Smalley has never dealt with a setting like TPC Scottsdale.

“I have a little taste of what it will be like from the U.S. Open, but I can’t imagine that’s at all similar to what it’ll be like here on Saturday,” Smalley says. “It’s gonna be crazy.”

First, it was a Web.com Tour event as an amateur. Then, he qualified for a major. Now he’s a professional playing in a PGA Tour event.

Every level has been a height in Smalley’s development. And he understands how a strong performance in Scottsdale could further launch his career, according to his mother.

“He absolutely realizes that,” Maria Smalley says. “Everything has been a stepping stone.”