Denny McCarthy honors ‘sweetest girl,’ whose memory lives on at Augusta National

Denny McCarthy honors ‘sweetest girl,’ whose memory lives on at Augusta National
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Madison Smith was like many teenage golfers, rolling putts, eyes closed, imagining herself winning a tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. After Smith was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, she had one wish, and one wish only: to play the iconic Alister Mackenzie layout, one of golf’s holy grails, and stay in the Crow’s Nest.

“She’s convinced she’s going to get to Augusta, one way or another,” Smith’s father, James, told The Washington Post in May 2022.

Madison Smith never made it to Augusta National.

She died Oct. 22, 2023, at just 16 years old.

Her memory, though, lives on at this 88th Masters thanks to Denny McCarthy.

McCarthy’s Masters debut is as much for Madison as it is himself. The McCarthys and Smiths are from the same neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland, and belong to the same golf club, Manor Country Club. The William Flynn design produced McCarthy, a standout at the University of Virginia and now a 31-year-old, two-time runner-up on the PGA Tour, and in recent years allowed a young girl named Madison to fall in love with the game.

“She was just the sweetest girl, absolutely loved golf,” McCarthy said, “and was a big fan of mine. … But honestly, I probably learned more from her than she did from me.”

Madison was diagnosed in August 2021 with Stage 3 colorectal cancer. She started undergoing chemotherapy around the same time she was beginning high school, at Our Lady of Good Counsel, where she earned Varsity letters in swimming and golf. After a period of remission, Madison’s cancer returned two Decembers ago, though she kept fighting. She earned All-Met second-team honors as a sophomore, punctuating what would be her final season of high-school golf with a runner-up showing in the conference tournament.

As her father described to the Post, Madison was ready to pass out with three holes to play but gutted it out to lose by only a single shot. “I don’t think there’s a better way to characterize her other than through that sheer will and determination,” James Smith told the paper.

McCarthy knows that grit well. Last summer, he was on the verge of breaking through for his first Tour win before falling to Viktor Hovland in a playoff. What he remembers most about that week at Muirfield Village, however, is that Madison, in the middle of her chemo treatments, drove from Maryland to Dublin, Ohio, with her mother, Molly, and McCarthy’s mother, Elena, and walked all 73 holes.

“Even though I played well, things didn’t go my way at the end,” McCarthy said, “but then you look up and see Madison, and it’s like, oh, this doesn’t really matter anymore.”

A couple weeks before her death was the last time McCarthy saw Madison. She attended McCarthy’s wife Sam’s bridal shower (the McCarthys married this past December), and that night the McCarthys visited the Smiths’ home.

“Her parents said that was the happiest they had seen her in a month,” McCarthy said. “She was not feeling well, hadn’t been talking much, but she made the effort to go to the shower and then hang out with us for a couple hours that night. I loved being around her. She was just so easy to be around. I have two younger sisters, but she was like my sister.

“I’m always thinking about her.”

This week at Augusta National, McCarthy is paying tribute to Madison. Inside his right shoe, on the insole, is an image of a rubber duck. His golf bag showcases the same duck logo. It was the perfect touch to add to a surprise that included providing James and Molly Smith with tickets to the Masters. Molly was moved to tears; she also wore a necklace with a locket containing Madison’s photo and several bracelets, including one that said, “Mads,” and another that read, “McCarthy.”

When the Smiths departed Augusta on Thursday night, Molly sent the McCarthys a text saying, “You don’t know how much it means that you’re keeping Madison’s presence alive.”


McCarthy, his family and even his caddie, Derek Smith, who flew in from Fayetteville, Arkansas, attended Madison’s funeral, where McCarthy said James gave a beautiful eulogy.

According to the Post, James’ heartfelt message included this: “Do the things you love with the people you love, as Madison would have wanted.”

Madison so badly wanted to play Augusta National. She attempted to qualify for the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, but never did. The fact that McCarthy is finally making his Masters debut, he knows Madison is looking down, excited. McCarthy admittedly is still stinging from his latest playoff loss, last Sunday to Akshay Bhatia at the Valero Texas Open, where McCarthy, after seven straight birdies to close regulation, fatted a wedge shot into the water to rinse his hopes. Back-to-back 74s to open his week at Augusta National, while enough to make the cut, aren’t ideal, either. But when McCarthy glances at the rubber duck on his bag, or slips on his shoe, it warms his heart.

McCarthy can’t look up and see Madison walking outside the ropes anymore, but he can close his eyes, remember, and draw inspiration.

“You know, she never complained once,” McCarthy said. “She was a true warrior, honestly. She tried to not let anything bother her, and she just had the attitude of a champion.”

And so, with Madison always in his heart, McCarthy will keep trying to become a champion of his own.

It won’t be this week, but maybe one day, it’ll be at Augusta National.

Just like Madison always had imagined.

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