PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Cameron Smith’s 65 on Saturday at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in the third round of The Players Championship was anything but a product of tee-to-green efficiency.
It was, however, a marvelous display of imagination, daring and some luck – both good and bad.
Smith, an Australian who has joined the large contingent of PGA Tour players to settle in the Jacksonville area, matched the tournament’s low round to that point when he made a par putt of two feet, seven inches at No. 18 – after earlier thinking about taking an unplayable lie when his drive strayed off the fairway – and was in a tie for third at the time he finished at 7-under-par 209.
It was Smith’s first score in the 60s at The Players and his fourth under-par round in 11 trips on the Stadium Course.
Not shabby for a guy who had to get up-and-down for par and finish with a birdie on his last three holes in the second round just to make the cut on the even-par number.
“I had a good practice session after yesterday’s round, kind of sorted some stuff out with the longer game,” said the two-time PGA Tour winner and native of Brisbane, Australia. “I felt really comfortable around the greens and putting all week. It actually kind of probably saved me. It made me be here on the weekend. And then today I think I just hit the ball a little bit better.”
But the day was not without its challenges for Smith, who tied for second in the Masters last November and is in his fourth Players.
He got up-and-down for birdie from a bunker at No. 2.
He hit his approach shot out of a fairway bunker to set up a four-foot birdie putt at No. 4.
After more routine birdies at Nos. 5 and 7, two of the more testy par-4s on the course, Smith ran into trouble at No. 10 when his second shot from the left rough hit a tree and caromed back into the fairway bunker. He was short of the green, pitched on and two-putted for double bogey. No matter. Smith two-putted for birdie at the par-5 11th and then chipped in for eagle at the par-4 12th, which played 289 yards for the third round.
The eagle chip was his luckiest bounce of the day. With the pin on the front-left, Smith had to land the ball on the front fringe. It hit a sprinkler head, but that kicked the ball to the hole.
“It was one of those sprinkler heads that they kind of cover up, and it kind of just got the edge of it and it bounced a little right,” he said. “I thought I hit a really good chip shot and it bounced right, and then kind of broke more than I thought and went in.”
He wasn’t done with the fun. After another two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th, Smith put his tee shot at No. 17 on the top shelf, leaving a birdie attempt of 41-9 – with a 6.2 make percentage.
He drained it.
Smith then hit what he thought was a good drive at the closing hole but the ball skidded through the fairway and came to rest less than 2 inches from a tree trunk, 164 yards from the hole.
He and his caddie discussed several options, including electing to take an unplayable lie, which means he would be hitting his third shot to the green.
“The way the tree was angled, I had to aim out right and hit a big draw,” he said. “Obviously there were trees down the right.”
Smith took a 9-iron and purposely thinned it, but took a full swing. The ball landed on the green, 30 feet away, and he gratefully accepted a two-putt.
“I kind of had to like thin it … I think if I went in there with my normal attack angle I would have hit the tree,” he said.
Smith is well aware of the history of Australian winners at The Players. Greg Norman holds the 72-hole scoring record, Steve Elkington is one of four two-time winners at the Stadium Course and Jason Day and Adam Scott have won The Players.
“I just love this place,” he said. “I live locally … I’m out here all the time. I mean, the fans are great here. The locals are awesome people. It’s like a second home for me.”
He had a familiar refrain for why Aussies do so well.
“I think because of the shots the course demands,” he said. “It’s a lot like those Sand Belt courses in Melbourne where you have to be very imaginative into the greens and hit lots of shots. Most of the time you have to hit the perfect shot to be really close.”
Smith wasn’t perfect on every shot in the third round. But it was good enough to make for a relaxing afternoon back home.
“I’ll just go home. I’ll just hang out,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s pretty hot today. Actually might jump in the pool for the first time this year and just take it pretty easy.”
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