By Brian Wacker
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
At last month’s Presidents Cup in Australia, Cameron Smith quickly found himself 3 down to the Americans’ hottest player, Justin Thomas, through the first five holes of their Sunday singles match before he rallied for a gritty 2-and-1 victory to earn, at least in the moment, a crucial point against the Americans. In the end, it ended up not mattering but for the final score. The victory by the 26-year-old Aussie, however, was telling.
There’s a certain rough-around-the-edges toughness to Smith, who came from a blue collar background in Brisbane, was never the longest hitter amongst his peers, often relying on an impeccable wedge game to wear down his opponents, and didn’t mince words when asked about the touchy subject of Patrick Reed’s recent bunker-gate controversy.
Sunday at the Sony Open in Hawaii, that toughness showed up again. Smith needed it on a wet and wild afternoon at Waialae Country Club, where he began the day three strokes behind leader Brendan Steele before forcing a playoff and winning on the first hole of sudden death.
“You just had to hang in there,” Smith said. “No one was playing good golf today.”
Smith just played good enough, especially when it mattered most.
Trailing by a stroke when he and Steele arrived at the 72nd hole, and after a 15-minute wait on the tee on the par 5, both men striped their tee shots down the middle into nearly identical position.
That’s when things got wild.
Ryan Palmer, tied with Smith and playing in the group in front, began walking back to the fairway bunker from where he had just hit his second shot, off the top of a large video board on the right side of the hole and out of bounds. Instead of playing a provisional, Palmer had tried to find his ball, leading to another long delay. He never did, returned to the bunker and made bogey.
Webb Simpson, who was playing in the group with Palmer and also a stroke back, stuck his wedge to 15 feet behind the hole but narrowly missed his birdie try.
Smith then hit his second into a greenside bunker left of the green, while Steele hooked his well left of the green, with the ball bouncing off the roof of a grandstand. Blocked by the grandstand, he got a free drop but was unable to get up and down and settled for par. Smith, meanwhile, pitched to eight feet and made the putt for birdie to force a playoff.
In sudden death and with daylight fading fast, the two went to the 10th hole. Smith pushed his drive into the right rough while Steele was in perfect position 87 yards from the flag. After Smith knocked his shot to 10 feet, Steele hit wedge over the green, though. Chipping off the mud and wet grass, Steele’s ball scooted 15 feet by and he missed the par putt coming back, opening the door for Smith, who two-putted for par and the win.
The victory for Smith, a two-time Australian PGA champ, was his first individual title on the PGA Tour. His only win prior to Sunday was alongside teammate Jonas Blixt in the Zurich Classic three years ago.
“I've always been quite good at not giving up,” said Smith, who began the tournament four over through the first two holes on Thursday before rallying for a respectable two-under 68 that day.
On Sunday he didn’t give up either.
The victory gets him into next year’s Masters as well as next year’s winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui, which he wasn’t a part of this year. His four birdies en route to a final-round 68 also helped raise more money for the wildfires that have devastated Australia the last few months.
The destruction there was never far from his mind this week — one of Smith’s uncles lost everything and he fled to the U.S. to stay with Smith, who lives in Florida. Neither was ability to fight back.
“I've never felt the need to kind of mentally check out in any way,” Smith said. “I started [the tournament on Thursday] bogey, triple bogey, and then finished that day even par and progressed from there.”
All the way to a victory.