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Mar 19, 2013 4:19 PM by McD Media

Local players ready to go in Chitimacha Louisiana Open

They're part of the group that carries the local banner for this week's Chitimacha Louisiana Open, but the circumstances for both Michael Smith and Brian Rowell are eerily similar heading into Thursday's opening round.

Both of the Lafayette golfers are sponsor exemptions into the $550,000 Web.com Tour event, and looking to use this weekend as a springboard for the rest of the season - and, hopefully, the rest of their professional careers.

Both have played in the U.S. Open over the past two years, Smith in 2011 at Congressional in Bethesda, Md., and Rowell last summer at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

And both are new fathers, since the first of the year. Rowell and wife Brittany welcomed son Gunner in January. Smith and his wife Sydni welcomed daughter Annie Gayle a month later.

"That changes your life, for sure," Rowell said Tuesday during a practice session for the tournament that begins championship play Thursday. "But it's a change for the good."

"Having her makes it a lot easier when things aren't going good," Smith said during Monday's pro-am competition. "If you get off to a bad start, knowing she's there makes it a lot easier to come home. It puts golf into perspective like nothing else will."

Their offspring don't know it, but it's a big week for their fathers. Both are seeking a good performance and a high finish to give them more opportunities to get into future Web.com Tour events - specifically the Brazil Champions April 1-7, the Tour's next event. The top 25 finishers here earn automatic spots in that field.

"I believe I can contend, but the main focus is the top 25," Rowell said. "When you don't have status, you need some luck, and I really need to take advantage of this to eventually get to fully exempt."

Rowell's been in that situation before as he prepares for his third Open appearance. He's made the cut in both previous appearances, tying for 21st in 2006 and tying for 48th in 2011.

Smith has played in each of the last four Opens, making the cut in 2010 and narrowly missing in 2009 and in the last two years.

"It helps to be a little older with some more experience," he said. "It makes it a little bit easier to take care of all the things that go with playing here. But it's always exciting to play at home."

The 2006 appearance is special for Rowell, and not just because of his solid finish. Lafayette eventually became home specifically because of the Open, where he met his wife-to-be.

"My mother-in-law was a volunteer and was giving me a ride, and we started talking about Lafayette," Rowell said. "Eventually I wound up staying with them, met Brittany and became friends with the family ... we kept in touch, I'd visit pretty regularly. It just sort of blossomed.

"My in-laws (Dane and Cara Escott) are just the best. They've given me tremendous support in golf ... without them, I wouldn't be pursuing my dreams like I am now."

Family is equally important for Smith, whose family is involved in virtually every aspect of Acadiana golf. Older brother Matt was also a college player at UL before Michael earned all-conference honors -- and the two will team again this week with Matt caddying for Michael. Father Dennis has also handled those duties in the past.

"That makes it fun," Smith said. "To have them out there with me makes it pretty special."

It's early in the season for both. Smith played in a Hooters Tour event in Georgia just after Annie's birth, and both played in the Adams Tour's Wal-Mart Open in Alexandria last week.

"I didn't play well either place," said Smith, who missed the cut in Alexandria. "It's just been a slow start, but that can change pretty quickly."

"I made the cut but I didn't play well," said Rowell of the Alexandria event. "I had three rounds under par, but they were barely under par and I mixed an 80 in there. I haven't played much at all after second stage last year, with the baby and the weather we had in February."

Both are also glad to be at Le Triomphe, where they'll home to take advantage of local knowledge. With the in-laws living on the course, it's familiar territory for Rowell, while Smith was a regular on the course throughout his junior and collegiate career.

"It's different every year," Smith said. "It seems to be softer and the greens are soft. It's so weather dependent out here .. if it gets calm, it can get pretty easy in a hurry."

"It's definitely different," Rowell said. "We don't play the back tees a lot. The greens are different, and the winds play different this time of year than the rest of the year. But I still know where to hit it and where to miss it.

"Hey, I wish I could play 10 of these here at home. It's very cool to stay at home, sleep in your own bed and be close to the baby."

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