Cameron Smith’s first solo victory on the PGA Tour last Sunday at the Sony Open in Hawaii capped what has been a wild month for the 26-year-old Australian. Consider everything that’s gone on over the last handful of weeks:
• Played in his first Presidents Cup, beating the Americans’ hottest player, Justin Thomas, in Sunday singles.
• Became entangled in the Patrick Reed bunker-gate controversy after speaking out against Reed.
• Offered refuge to an uncle who’d fled Australia after losing everything in the wildfires that continue to rage Down Under.
• Emerged victorious from a wet and windy final round at Waialae Country Club, where he recovered from a bogey/triple-bogey start to the tournament to win in a playoff in near darkness.
• Raised money for relief efforts in Australia with his play in Hawaii.
“Yeah, it’s been interesting,” Smith, back at his U.S. home in Florida, told Golf Digest a few days after the victory. “It’s felt quite good.”
Interesting would also be an understatement.
During the Australian Open, on the eve of Presidents Cup week, Smith was asked about Reed’s rules violation at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Smith didn’t mince words, telling reporters, “If you make a mistake maybe once, you could maybe understand, but to give a bit of a bulls**t response like the camera angle … that’s pretty up there. I know Pat pretty good, and he’s always been nice to me, so I don’t want to say anything bad about him, but anyone cheating the rules, I’m not up for that. I don’t have any sympathy for anyone that cheats.”
The comments caused a stir, on social media and beyond. According to a source, an official from the PGA Tour spoke to Smith about the remarks, essentially issuing a warning that he would be fined in the future if he made similar statements. The tour, through a spokesperson, said it does not comment about disciplinary matters, though the player handbook does include a section with language that states a player can face sanctions for public attacks on fellow players. Smith, for his part, would not comment on the Reed matter, preferring to move on and put it behind him.
If the fallout from the Reed comments did bother Smith, it certainly didn’t show in his play in Hawaii. Not only did he turn around a blundering start but he also made up a three-stroke deficit on the final day—albeit with some help from Brendan Steele, who lost his one-shot lead on the final hole of regulation after hooking his second shot off the roof of a grandstand.
Still, the resilience Smith showed by hanging around and capturing the title could mark the start of something bigger. It’s technically Smith’s second tour win, the other coming alongside teammate Jonas Blixt at the 2017 Zurich Classic of New Orleans. This one, though, was his own, and in his eyes it was also overdue.
“I wasn’t working hard enough, I wasn’t putting the time in,” Smith said. “But over the last few months, the whole team around me put the time in to get the result.”
That included time with swing coach Grant Field, whose focus centered largely around Smith’s takeaway. When Smith has struggled with it, it’s because his arms and body have been disconnected, leading to the clubface shutting down, something that doesn’t work well for a player who likes to hit a baby fade.
The goal, according to Field, is to get Smith to release the club earlier, with the right arm fully extended. “He should hold a little pressure in the trail leg and have a feeling that the arms are working more down and in front of his body,” Field says.
Says Smith: “I’m not that happy with it yet, but it’s getting better It was tough to trust it with the conditions last week.”
Which leads to another area Smith has put in extra time: the mental side of the game.
Recently, Smith started seeing Jonah Oliver, a mental coach whose client list over the past decade has ranged from golfers, to Olympians, to professional soccer and Aussie Rules football teams. Oliver’s work is a mix of sport psychology and neuroscience, and has helped Smith put the onus on getting more out of his game, which is something he has admittedly struggled with in the past.
“In past years I’ve had three weeks, four weeks off before I get [to Hawaii], and I’m typically pretty lazy when I'm home, eating pies and stuff,” Smith said. “So it’s actually been quite good in the fact that I’ve been able to kind of carry over [my play from the end of the year]. And I played really well at the Presidents Cup and played again the next week quite solidly. It’s definitely carried over I think more than previous [years].”
Indeed, that Smith won at Waialae shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given his recent play in pressure situations. Against Thomas at the Presidents Cup, Smith was 1 up with two holes to play when Thomas hit his approach shot to six feet on the 17th at Royal Melbourne. Smith responded by hitting a nearly identical shot. Thomas missed his birdie, Smith made his and the match was over.
In the moment, it was a huge point for the International team as it kept its hopes of an upset victory alive. The U.S. went on to win, 16-14, but Smith, who had been 0-1-1 to that point in the competition, proved something in taking down Thomas, who until that point was unbeaten on the week.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted in the Presidents Cup, but it was a great week and great experience,” Smith said. “The International team has moved a lot in the right direction.”
So, too, has Smith. A longish hitter off the tee, and with one of the tour’s best wedge games, the Aussie has the talent (and momentum) to win more as the year unfolds, including even in majors. With the Masters just a few months away, it’s already something Smith is working toward. Two years ago, he tied for fifth at Augusta National thanks to a final-round 66.
Smith is vying for a spot in this year’s Olympics. At 31st in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s the third-highest ranked Australian in the world, behind only Adam Scott (13th) and Marc Leishman (28th). The top two from each country will qualify for the Tokyo Games later this summer.
Both are big goals. With a win out of the way, they’re also ones he can focus on now.
“Things just fell into place, and sometimes you just need a little bit of luck to kind go your way,” Smith said of his victory in Hawaii. “You never know what can happen.”
Originally Appeared on Golf Digest