NAPLES, Fla. — You might not have heard of Sarah Jane Smith, and that’s understandable. She’s not exactly a standout on the LPGA, despite the fact that the 33-year-old Australian turned pro in 2004 and has been on tour since 2006. In that time, however, she has yet to win a tournament and earned a total of just $1.6 million.
Still, on Thursday at the CME Tour Championship, Smith became a much talked about golfer after shooting a bogey-free six-under 66 to take a share of the lead with Peiyun Chien in the tour's 2017 finale.
Previously this season in 30 starts, Smith's best showing was a T-3 at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in February. After that, she had been mostly finishing in the middle of the pack. That is, until the last four weeks of the season. In the three events preceding this week's stop at Tiburon Golf Club, she finished in the top 15.
“It was a little bit rough in the middle of the season,” said Smith, who had earned just shy of $400,000 and came into the week No. 41 on the CME points list. “And then I’ve been working on a little bit more tempo in my swing, since I can get really fast out there. I sort of made a conscious effort a few weeks ago to sort of do it on the golf course, and it’s made a huge difference.”
Smith says she’s been working with Sean Foley, Tiger Woods’ former coach, on and off for the last few years.
“That’s the main focus at the moment,” Smith continued. “I mean, I sort of worked on the same thing in my swing for almost a couple years. I’m obviously a slow learner. Slowing down has made everything else easier.”
If ever there were a time for a several-year-old swing project to start working, it’d be right now.
Smith stood out on a day where the tour's marquee players vying for the year's big prizes—Rolex Player of the Year, the Vare Trophy for low stroke average and the $1 million bonus for winning the season-long CME Race to the Globe title—struggled. Lexi Thompson, No. 1 in the points list, hit her opening shot into a hazard en route to a one-under 71 to stand tied for 36th. Shanshan Feng, winner of the last two LPGA events, shot a two-under 70 to be T-18, same as Canada's Brooke Henderson. Nursing a sore shoulder, So Yeon Ryu could only post an even-par 72, while In Gee Chun shot a one-over 73.
Just one player who could win the season-long title with a victory in this final event managed to finish inside the top 10 after day one: rookie Sung Hyun Park, who shot a five-under 67 to be among five players just one stroke off the lead after 18 holes.