For Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, golf is a “safe haven” — except in the bunkers at the Utah Open

The Qualtrics founder says he would not have experienced the success he’s had in business if not for his time on the course

(Jesse Dodson | Fairways Media) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith shot a 2-over-par 74 during the opening round of the Utah Open on Friday at Riverside Country Club in Provo. The Qualtrics founder and tech billionaire says golf is a "safe haven" for him and has been key to his success in business.

Provo • Ryan Smith’s shot looked good in the air, but the ball landed in the bunker just short of Riverside Country Club’s No. 11 green.

“Double,” the Jazz owner announced, even before picking up his tee.

Smith’s dire prediction of a double bogey on the par-3 hole became true, creating another disappointing moment in Friday’s first round of the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open on his home course, Riverside Country Club. The shots that added up to his 2-over-par 74 ranged from spectacular to amateurish in what Smith labeled an “action-packed” round, on a morning when 14-year-old Kihei Akina of Alpine posted a 67.

Smith certainly showed glimpses of the talent that made PGA Tour player Tony Finau cite him as “one of the best amateurs I’ve ever played with.”

The third player in the third group off Riverside’s No. 1 tee Friday wore a black hoodie with the Jazz note on the front; a black Jazz hat; black, straight-legged pants and white, high-top golf shoes designed like basketball sneakers. During a search for his drive on No. 2, a rules official located a stray ball.

“That’s not mine,” Smith said, upon inspection. “Mine has a Jazz logo.”

Once he found his ball, Smith played a pretty wedge shot over a tree, but missed his birdie putt. He played the first six holes in 2 under, and also produced a great stretch of the back nine.

Smith’s 300-yard drive and 260-yard shot with a fairway wood led to an eagle on No. 15. That “3” and three birdies were offset by two double bogeys and three bogeys, mostly stemming from his troubles in bunkers that were pounded by three days of rain. Twice, he needed two shots to get out of the sand.

Smith was unhappy with the preparation of the bunkers, judging by his conversations with two rules officials during the round. Yet he blamed only himself in a post-round interview, and responded remarkably well to the double bogey on No. 11. He played the next four holes in 3 under par.

“I’m just not in golf shape,” Smith said. “I can’t hold it together for 18 holes. … It catches up with you in tournament golf, because it’s so different than regular golf.”

His opening round 74 left him somewhat disappointed, yet he declared the morning a victory: “I feel like I just went on a three-day vacation.”

That’s due to the diversion that golf gives his business life as the Qualtrics CEO and NBA franchise owner, besides being a father of five. In a pre-tournament news conference, Smith spoke about the nature of a game that offers a series of intermittent conversations, while demanding a player’s full attention. “I mean, golf’s the ultimate equalizer, right? You get to spend time with people you would not normally spend time with,” Smith said.

He told the story of playing with an unnamed CEO whom he always wanted to meet. “There’s no scenario in life that we would get four hours together,” Smith said. “We talked about everything, almost to the point where we had nothing else to talk about.”

(Jesse Dodson | Fairways Media) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith shot a 2-over-par 74 during the opening round of the Utah Open on Friday at Riverside Country Club in Provo. The Qualtrics founder and tech billionaire says golf is a "safe haven" for him and has been key to his success in business.

Smith continued, “And I look at my life and I look at the people and the memories and who I hang out with and who I’ve crossed paths with. So much of that has come from a spot where the game of golf has put me in. … A lot of times, it’s people you didn’t know you needed in your life.”

He always enjoys the solitude of taking a half-dozen balls, driving to a vacant green at Riverside and chipping (his short game is excellent).

“At the same time, it’s my yoga,” he said. “It’s actually where I go to think. … It’s noise-canceling for me. It actually tunes everything else out. In today’s world, there’s not a whole lot you can do to totally unplug. … There’s not a lot of safe havens, and golf is truly one of those.”

That was true for Smith when he was 14. The day he learned of his parents’ impending divorce, he went to work, picking up range balls at the Provo public facility then called East Bay Golf Course.

Smith later joined Riverside, located across University Avenue from the original Qualtrics site. “We’ve been on a 20-year journey” with the company, he said. “I always say it would have taken 14 if I didn’t live across the street from a golf course.”

To play all three rounds of the Utah Open, Smith likely will have to shoot in the 60s on Saturday, enabling him to make the 36-hole cut. He views the Utah Open as “definitely a major” on his golf calendar. The others? This might be the only time Riverside CC appears in the same sentence with Pebble Beach Golf Links (home of the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) and The Old Course at St. Andrews (host of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship).

The difference between the Utah Open and those other events is individual accountability. In a pro-am format, Smith would have become a highly valuable teammate Friday, while being able to dismiss his bad holes.

In the 2018 Dunhill Links, “We had a real chance to win,” Finau said, remembering the team’s fourth-place pro-am finish. “So not only is he a great weekend golfer, but he’s a good golfer under pressure as well.”

Smith said of contending at St. Andrews, “There’s no better feeling in the world.”

Friday’s round didn’t evoke those memories, but Smith enjoyed a pairing with his friend Shane Brady (73) and University of Utah golfer Braxton Watts (78), a freshman from Farmington. Smith provided steady commentary. When he mishit his tee shot on the par-3 No. 17, he said, “Get over the Provo [River].”

The low-flying ball cleared the water and rolled onto the green, 15 feet from the pin, although Smith missed his birdie chance.

Watts didn’t play well, but he’ll get another 18 holes with Smith, and a chance to make a better impression Saturday. Seemingly everyone who plays with Smith has a story to tell.

Finau’s favorite is about a 2017 round at Pebble Beach, where he pointed out a house overlooking the 18th fairway. Two years later, when Finau was preparing to play in the U.S. Open, Smith invited him to spend the week with him. Finau wondered where Smith’s home was, exactly.

Smith replied, “Oh, I got that house there on the right. You said you liked it, right?”

Yet in its own way, that property illustrates his point that on the golf course, everybody’s facing the same issues — whether they’re watching the waves at Pebble Beach or struggling in the sand at Riverside.

Friday’s notable scores

• 62 by Oregon native Matt Marshall, tying the competitive course record

• 63 by former PGA Tour player Daniel Summerhays of Fruit Heights, making his first Utah Open appearance

• 68 by CBS Sports broadcaster Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback

• 70 by Utah Women’s Open champion Kerstin Fotu, hoping to become the first woman to make the cut in the Utah Open