PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The scoring was so low at Kapalua that it was easy to overlook the name in the record book.
The play was so bold, bordering on fearless, at the TPC Sawgrass that Cameron Smith was impossible to ignore.
Those two victories, different in so many ways, are a big reason Smith is No. 6 in the world. He has a comfortable lead over Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas behind him in the ranking and is closing in on Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Cantlay ahead of him.
Never mind that he doesn’t resemble golf’s elite.
Smith hits short and crooked off the tee, which has never been a good combination in any era of golf. True, he makes up for it with his short game, particularly his putting. That much was evident Monday at The Players Championship when he one-putted eight of the last nine greens.
That carried him to a record-tying 10 birdies in the final round and a 6-under 66, giving him a one-shot victory in the biggest golf tournament this side of a major.
But there is more to the 28-year-old Australian that can’t be measured by numbers. And it’s not his mullet, which for the longest time was getting more attention than his golf.
For Smith, it’s all about the fight and the willingness to take on any shot.
He is the product of a working-class family in Brisbane. He was asked to describe the Aussie meaning of toughness, particularly the Queenslanders.
“It’s probably just never give up,” Smith said. “I grew up watching rugby league and watching the Queenslanders come from behind. And even when it got gritty, they’d somehow manage to win. I think that’s kind of instilled in all of us.”
It was like that at the start of the year. Smith set the PGA Tour record to par when he won the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua at 34 under. More than the score, he had to go toe-to-toe with Jon Rahm, a power player from Spain and the No. 1 player in the world.
Rahm closed within one shot with seven holes to play, and Smith matched him shot-for-shot the rest of the way on a Plantation course built for power.
The Players Championship was even more hectic, minus the record scoring. There were 17 players separated by three shots at one point in the middle of the round. There was trouble everywhere, even in the best conditions of the week.
Smith had only one thought, and that was to be aggressive to the very end.
He started by rolling in a 40-foot birdie putt, the first of four in a row that helped take him from a two-shot deficit to a two-shot lead. And then he couldn’t hit it where he was aiming, leading to three straight bogeys. It was like that all day. Smith had one par through 13 holes.
“And lots of good grinding at the end,” he said.
What stands out is the finish, even if it was partly by accident.
Already the most recognizable hole in America, the par-3 17th hole and its island green take on new meaning in the final round of the richest tournament in the world, a $20 million purse with $3.6 million going to the winner.
Smith led by two shots and stared across the water to an island, the hole 135 yards away cut in the back right portion of the green. There is about 12 feet between the flag and the water, and Smith’s 9-iron landed somewhere between that space.
On purpose? The smile would suggest otherwise.
“I was probably aiming 10 feet left of that,” he said. “But still wanted to stay aggressive, still wanted to make birdie.”
That he did, holing a 4-foot putt for a three-shot lead.
Equally scary is the tee shot on the 18th, with water all the way down the left side. Smith didn’t hesitate. Out came the driver to get down the fairway as far as he could. From the trees, he tried to punch out and caught it more cleanly off the pine needles than he expected, the ball scooting across the short grass and into the water.
And then a big cheer: Anirban Lahiri had birdied the 17th behind him. The lead was down to two shots and the margin for error was shrinking. Smith was 60 yards away playing his fourth shot on the closing par 4. And he never flinched.
His lob wedge danced around the cup and settled 3 feet away for bogey.
“You have to tip your cap at Cam, who played phenomenal golf,” said Paul Casey, who played alongside in this wild ride. “He won this tournament.”
That’s the joy Smith gets out of golf.
It doesn’t always work out in his favor. Bold shots he didn’t pull off cost him a chance to win a World Golf Championship and a FedEx Cup playoff event last year. But that’s the thrill of it, and he gets it right enough times to be among the best in the world.
“My expectations are I wake up, go to the gym, practice as hard as I can for a couple hours, and then go and have a good time. That’s it basically every day,” Smith said. “My expectation is to prepare well and then kind of let everything fall into place from there.”
There is a lot of fight without too much stress.
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