ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – As Cameron Smith did the car wash of media duties after winning the Players Championship in March, former PGA Tour pro Aron Price, a fellow Aussie who has known Smith for years, looked on at his mate and delivered the best explanation yet of why Smith has turned into one of golf’s big-game hunters.
“You know how there are people who are outwardly confident, but are really insecure? Cam’s the opposite,” Price said. “He won’t say it but he’s convinced that head-to-head that he can beat anyone in the world.”
At the 2019 Presidents Cup, Smith hinted at the breakthrough that was to come with a convincing victory over Justin Thomas in his Sunday singles match. In Maui, at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, he shot a staggering 34-under par to edge then-World No. 1 Jon Rahm and now he erased a four-stroke overnight deficit and spoiled Rory McIlroy’s return to major glory by stringing together five straight birdies on the back nine to shoot a final-round 8-under 64 at the Old Course and win the 150th British Open.
“He’s got a big set of balls on him,” said Smith’s caddie, Sam Pinfold. “He’s a real battler and a bulldog. As funny as it may sound, I’d almost rather be four strokes behind the leader than four ahead. The way he plays he knows he’s got to make birdies and he puts the blinkers on and goes.”
That pretty much sums up what he did in March at the Players, when he also picked apart TPC Sawgrass, his home course, and earned what at the time was his signature win. Viktor Hovland, who finished fourth at the Open, summed up what makes Smith’s game so special.
“He doesn’t have that ‘wow’ factor when you look at him,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable how he’s able to get the ball in the hole. He’ll hit a bad shot and it just doesn’t seem to bother him, because he knows that he’s going to hit a great next shot. That’s what golf is all about.”
It’s hard to beat a great putter, or as the British Open champion Willie Park once said back in the day, “A man who can putt is a match for anyone.” Smith always has been blessed with short-game wizardry. His creativity around the greens was born during his childhood when he used to love to take a sand wedge and make a golf ball spin to a stop on the makeshift backyard green designed by his father. These days, there are few tour pros, if any, more highly regarded for their short-game artistry than Smith.
“It’s almost like his shots are a little butterfly, they land so soft, and he’s got a little remote control on the ball,” Golf Australia’s high-performance director Brad James told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Smith’s game was made for this ancient seaside link, and his creativity was borne out over the final few holes in a delicate up-and-down to save par from short left of the 17th green and a nifty putt to tap-in range for one final birdie to clinch his one-stroke victory and set a tournament scoring record of 20-under 268.
“I’m not afraid to hit different shots,” Smith said. “I feel like I can play any shot under any circumstance.”
That confidence, that self-belief, has been his secret sauce. He’s not afraid to play aggressively, and on Sunday that made all the difference.
“Sometimes it is our downfall,” Pinfold said, as it was at the Masters in April when his tee shot at the par-3 12th found a watery grave and ended his hopes of a Green Jacket. “But more often than not lately it’s coming through for us.”
Smith has added world-class iron player to his arsenal. He smartly took the bunkers at 16 known as the Principal’s Nose out of play by laying up with an iron off the tee and finding the green with a crisp approach from 192 yards. He continues to fight his driver, which can be erratic, but the Old Course, like Augusta National, isn’t as penal off the tee as the single-lane roads that serve as fairways at the U.S. Open and often the PGA Championship. It’s why the British and the Masters seemed to be the safe bet for him to claim a major. McIlroy didn’t lose the Claret Jug, rather Smith took it from him with an inspired back-nine charge. He had a look in his eyes that was reminiscent of Raymond Floyd in his prime, who possessed one of the great thousand-yard stares.
“Some people have it, don’t they?” fellow Aussie Adam Scott said. “That’s the easiest way to say it, and that’s taking for granted all the hard work he’s put into his game like everyone does but I think he’s got it and he wants it and he’s not afraid of it.”
And now Smith is the Champion Golfer of the Year.