Now No. 6 in the world, the Aussie will play important role for International Team
Cameron Smith started the year by setting a PGA TOUR scoring record (and beating the top player in the world in the process). Two months later, he won the largest prize in the TOUR’s history, taking $3.6 million from THE PLAYERS’ record $20 million purse.
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The latter achievement, which he accomplished Monday at TPC Sawgrass, moved him to No. 2 in the FedExCup and sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking, the fruits of a newfound dedication to his fitness and improvements to his iron play. Add those to a short game that’s long been considered among the best in the world and Smith is now firmly ensconced among the top echelon in the game.
He’s done so with an old-school skillset that stands out in a space-age era of golf. Smith is surrounded by players whose swings have been optimized for maximum distance and who use analytics to determine the most efficient path to the hole.
He isn’t all that long, is occasionally crooked and still putts for dough, even after the data disproved the old adage that discounted the importance of driving distance. Smith plays an entertaining style of golf, and one that also is proving to be incredibly successful.
TPC Sawgrass isn’t known as a place where players can scrape it around, but Smith won THE PLAYERS despite hitting less than half his fairways (24 of 56) and finishing last in driving accuracy among the 70 players who completed all four weather-delayed rounds. He’s the first PLAYERS champion to hit the fairway less than 50% of the time. Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee called it “one of the greatest examples of great nerve from start to finish that I’ve seen.” His 24 birdies were the most in the field, but he also made 11 bogeys.
“I felt really confident with my iron shots,” Smith said. “I just needed to hit the fairway. That was the big thing.”
His iron play is vastly improved this season, allowing him to capitalize on the best club in his bag, the putter. He ranks sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this season after never finishing in the top 50 of that metric in his six previous seasons.
“I feel as though I’ve put the work and I feel as though I’ve done a lot of work on my body and I’ve put in the time,” he said. “It’s nice to see all that stuff paying off.”
The first sign of Smith’s ascendence came in the opening week of the year, when he held off world No. 1 Jon Rahm at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, shooting the lowest 72-hole score in relation to par to beat Rahm by one. On Monday, Smith conquered a strong field on a penal Pete Dye layout.
His first 13 holes of the final round featured just a single par. He birdied five of his first six holes before three straight bogeys knocked him back. But then he birdied the first four holes of the back nine to separate himself from the field.
Nifty par saves on both 14 and 15, where he holed par putts of 14 and 8 feet, set the stage for the full Cameron Smith experience over TPC Sawgrass’ famous final three holes.
It started with a severe hook off the 16th tee that necessitated a punch out from the pine straw. Holding onto a one-shot lead, he had to hit a 3-iron for his third shot into a green protected by a pond.
“I think that’s where it could have got away from me a little bit,” Smith said afterward.
Instead, he laced his long-iron from 240 yards to the left side of the green to escape with a par. Then, on the island 17th, he squeezed his ball into the narrow strip of land between the flag and the water. He shared a smile with his caddie, Sam Pinfold, as he put his 9-iron back in the bag. Smith’s short game allows him to take aggressive lines with his irons, but not even Jacques Costeau can recover from a missed green on 17.
No one intentionally hits his tee shot right of the flag, but by knocking it close and making the birdie putt, he walked to the 18th tee with a two-shot lead.
Smith’s drive on 18 unsurprisingly sailed into the right trees. That was the safe play, far away from yet another penalty area. But the crowd was in shock when his punch shot rolled across the fairway and into the water. But that miscue offered just one more opportunity for Smith to display his strongest trait.
“He’s a genius inside 60 yards,” Pinfold said. After his penalty drop, Smith’s wedge bounced right of the hole before spinning to tap-in range. That up-and-down meant Anirban Lahiri, who’d just birdied 17, needed another birdie at 18 to force a playoff. He missed right of the green, and it was all over.
The scouting report on Smith says that his short game and his mental strength are his biggest assets. He needed just 24 putts in the final round and 101 for the week. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. “It’s definitely the strength of mine,” he said, “and sometimes I maybe lean on it too much.”
But it’s one thing to pour them in on a Wednesday. Doing it on a Sunday (or Monday) is another matter. In THE PLAYERS’ final round, Smith missed just one of the 8 attempts he faced from 7-15 feet. He gained more than 4 strokes on the greens.
“They breed them tough in Queensland,” said Smith’s friend, Jack Wilkosz. Smith needed that fortitude to make it to the PGA TOUR and win three times with a long game that didn’t match many of his peers. Before this year, he’d never finished better than 119th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, losing strokes in that area of his game each season. He’s a grinder whose resolve was steeled by all those years recovering from wayward shots.
“If you haven’t always been a good ballstriker, … you learn when you hit an awkward or squirrely shot to not get too wound up about it,” said former Masters champion Trevor Immelman, an interested observer Monday as the captain of this year’s International Team for the Presidents Cup. “I always used to think I was a good ballstriker, so it would really get under my skin when I hit a bad shot and maybe even affect future shots. Cam takes everything in stride.”
This year, Smith is on pace for the best showing of his career in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and is hitting nearly three-quarters of his greens to rank 10th in that statistic, as well. Immelman, a student of the swing, sees a “cleaner” transition that is rid of the excessive motion. He also appreciates the balance Smith exhibits in his swing.
“He always nails his finish,” Immelman said.
He did that Monday to bring home the biggest title of his career.