HONOLULU — 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 recently when asked about the touchy subject of Patrick Reed’s bunker controversy.
Sunday at the Sony Open in Hawaii, that toughness showed up again. Smith needed it on a dreary, wet 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.”
Sometimes just hanging around is enough. Smith just played good enough, too, 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 tagged their drives in the middle of the fairway in nearly identical position.
That’s when things got wild.
Ryan Palmer, tied with Smith, one back of Steele and playing in the group in front, was walking back from up near the green to the fairway bunker from where he had just hit his second shot, the ball bouncing off the top of a large video board on the right side of the hole and out of bounds. Instead of hitting a provisional, Palmer had tried to find his ball, leading to another long delay. He never did, playing again from the bunker for his fourth shot and eventually making 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.
After the delay, Smith hit his second into a greenside bunker left of the green before Steele hooked his well left of the green, the ball bouncing off the roof of a grandstand. Blocked by the grandstand, Steele got a free drop but was unable to get up and down for birdie and settled for par. Smith, some 70 feet away in the sand, meanwhile, pitched to eight feet and cooly made the putt for birdie to force a playoff.
In sudden death and with daylight fading fast, the two went to the 10th hole instead of the 18th, deemed too water-logged as squeegees were needed to clear the green near the end of regulation. Smith pushed his drive into the right rough while Steele was in perfect position, 87 yards from the flag and in the fairway. But after Smith knocked his shot to 10 feet, Steele hit wedge over the green. Chipping off the mud and wet grass, Steele’s ball scooted 15 feet by the hole with his third shot, and he missed the par putt coming back. That allowed Smith to two-putt 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 even-par 70 that day.
On Sunday he didn’t give up either.
“Just having to make the putts, feeling like something else is on the line, I think I drew a little bit from the Presidents Cup,” Smith said. “I felt as though I played some of my best golf that week, and with such little time between these events I think that’s kind of rolled over definitely into this week.”
The victory gets Smith into the Masters in April as well as next year’s winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui. His four birdies en route to a final-round 68 also helped raise more money for the wildfires that have devastated his native Australia the last few months. Smith was one of a number of Aussies who pledged to raise funds with their play to help the cause back home.
That destruction 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 the 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.