PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA (AP) — Cam Smith’s 9-iron began its drop toward the island green while Matt Kelly stood outside the ropes.
With a two-shot lead, Smith’s strategy should have been obvious: The green is in the middle. Par is a two-putt situation. Now is the time to move on.
That’s not Smith’s style, though.
Even in front of such a large audience. Even in this precarious situation.
Kelly, who caddies for Marc Leishman, stated, “Cam just has the largest balls.” “I’m standing there, thinking, Oh my God, what is he doing with that ball in the air?” But that’s exactly what he’s attempting. He’s attempting to make two.”
Smith’s drive landed 4 feet, 4 inches right of the pin, the second-closest of the day at TPC Sawgrass’ notoriously tricky 17th hole. Smith’s courageous last hour may have given him the cushion he needed to win the Players Championship, but it came as no surprise to those who know him best.
“He’d rather lose it on a shot than not win it,” his best buddy since ninth grade, Jack Wilkosz, said. “He’ll take on the tiniest hole you have and give it his all.” He’s going to be abrasive. That’s what he’s renowned for, so he’ll keep doing it.”
After a week of heavy rain, Smith knew he needed to attack a “soft and mushy” course, and his 10 final-day birdies tied for the most in a competitive round at TPC Sawgrass. With four birdies to open, he loaded it up early. He started his second nine with four birdies in the middle of the course. However, we’ve known for some time that when he gets hot, few can keep up with him: He has led the field in putting in all three of his stroke-play victories, including his incredible week at Kapalua, where he posted 34 under par to break the Tour scoring record and beat world No. 1 Jon Rahm. Sure, his putter got him here at The Players as well.
He nailed 136-foot putts in the last round and gained more than 11 12 strokes on the field on the greens for the week.
Smith, on the other hand, achieved this hallmark victory in signature fashion: by swinging hard at hard targets.
“That’s an Australian mindset,” remarked Sam Pinfold, his caddy. “He enjoys brawling. Doesn’t give up. He’s a ruthless individual. He puts a lot of emphasis on his short game, so he takes on pins or does things that others would not encourage. He’ll just get the lob wedge out, close it, and we’ll be on our way.”
Smith won his first PGA Tour event (with partner Jonas Blixt) at the 2017 Zurich Classic, where he birdied the final two holes with his own ball and then again on the fourth playoff hole. And he didn’t back down during his first solo victory at the 2020 Sony Open, forcing overtime with a birdie on the final hole. Last year, Smith demonstrated his mettle in a playoff at the Zurich, this time alongside countryman Leishman, when Louis Oosthuizen found the water off the tee.
“Cam had to get up and hit that shot, and that fairway looks extremely little all of a sudden,” Kelly remarked. “And sure enough, he makes the shot he needed to make. He is constantly attempting to make the correct shot. He has no desire to play it safe.
“There’s no avoiding it.” There will be no bailout. That’s what today’s finish reminded me of — seizing the bull by the horns and delivering the shot that’s required, rather than avoiding it.”
Smith’s gambles have backfired on occasion, as they do with any risk-taker. Last year was by far his best as a pro (top-10 finishes in a third of his appearances), but he also came up short in key situations. While trying to play a hero shot on the 72nd hole at the WGC in Memphis, he holed a tree and went out of bounds. He splashed his tee shot in the Hudson River in sudden death at the FedExCup playoff opener, handing the title to his opponent.
Pinfold admitted, “It’s been our downfall a few of times.” “Being aggressive hasn’t worked for us in a few of close calls.” But that is exactly what you must do out here. There are far too many talented players. There are far too many low-scoring games to play softly. It’s necessary to have a crack.
“It’s good now that you’re in a situation where you’re high enough in the world rankings or the FedExCup that a few dollars or points here and there won’t make a major difference.” But he’s a ferocious competitor.”
And that’s how Smith approached TPC Sawgrass’ final few soggy holes.
He snap-hooked his drive into the trees on the par-5 16th, leaving him no alternative but to pitch out diagonally, clinging to a narrow lead. For his third shot, he had 238 yards to the flag.
Smith remarked, “I believe that’s when it could have slipped away from me a little bit.” “It can be rather nerve-wracking to hit the water’s edge there.”
With his closest pursuers still to go, a small push there wouldn’t cover the water, implying he’d drop at least one, if not two, shots. He was, however, unconcerned about the implications. Smith ripped a 3-iron perfectly on his aim line, 50 feet from the flag and at the left edge of the green, pin-high.
Pinfold commented, “That was one of the best swings of the day.” “It might have gone anywhere, but to stripe a 3-iron into that green under that much pressure was really impressive.” That is precisely where we attempted to go.”
By comparison, the tee shot on 17 was simple: 137 yards, slight breeze into and from the right, and a comfortable 9-iron. Smith’s line was about 10 feet left of the flag, squarely over the bunker… and he pushed it slightly, causing a few nervous moments in the air.
Wilkosz stated, “I was like, That better be on land.”
“Stay on the green,” says the narrator. Melanie, his sister, answered, “Anywhere on the green.”
“It was going to be amazing as long as we got the number correct,” Pinfold added.
Smith laughed and remarked, “I’d be lying if I said I was aiming there.” “However, I still wanted to be aggressive, to make birdie.” For a brief moment, my heart was in my throat, but I knew it was the correct club.”
His ball landed 4 feet distant, safely covering the water. The audience erupted in applause. With a knowing grin, Smith handed the 9-iron back to Pinfold.
With a three-shot lead and the difficult 18th hole remaining, Smith might have pulled out a long iron and gone for par. It wasn’t even on the table. He reached for driver almost immediately, intending to blast his tee shot as far down as possible, even if it blew into the right trees. Indeed, his ball landed in the pine straw, and his pitch soared 50 yards beyond its planned range, scampering across the fairway and crashing into the pond.
“Let’s slow down,” Pinfold remarked as they approached the green for their fourth shot, but the tension quickly increased. A shout erupted around 500 yards away: Lahiri had birdied the 17th, trimming his margin to two. Or, perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, even less.
While Smith was deciding on his drop possibilities, the electronic leaderboard displayed a replay of another Australian’s sloppy finish. Adam Scott had a comfortable lead going into the 72nd hole in 2004 when he dragged his approach into the sea. Rather than falling, he summoned the guts to hole a 10-footer to win, complete with an iconic fist pump.
Smith’s gut check had finally arrived.
His 60-yard wedge shot dropped a few feet short of the green, skipped behind the flag, and nearly spun back into the cup for an unlikely par.
“That’s Cam Smith right there in the next image,” Pinfold remarked. “Not just the wedge shot itself, but the grit and balls to do it soon after and not even think about it,” says the player.
Smith’s courageous one-shot triumph was completed a few minutes later, and the scoring building exploded in applause. His mother and sister surrounded him inside, whom he hadn’t seen since December 2019 due to COVID regulations in Australia. Wilkosz, Smith’s best pal, was waiting outside, in tears. Wilkosz relocated to Florida four years ago to work as Smith’s personal assistant, a broad duty that includes everything from weightlifting spotter to swing videographer to pint-drinking partner.
“In Queensland, where we’re from, they breed ’em tough,” he remarked. “We’re mentally tough in every sport.” He puts his whole heart and soul into everything he does. He’s not going to back down. He isn’t going to take the easy way out. He’ll always choose the difficult path.”
That means hitting a 3-iron on the par-5 16th hole with nothing to lose.
That means finishing with barely 7 feet to spare on the island green, directly next to the flag.
Getting up and in while flirting with calamity is what this entails.
To win golf’s fifth major, you’ll have to go unconscious for 10 birdies.
“He’s done it so many times now that he doesn’t doubt himself,” Kelly said. “It’s quite commendable.” It’s not shocking to any of us who have followed him to be where he is now, maybe only the beginning of his star career, where he wants to be.”
Smith took the risky option – and pulled it off once more.
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