Cam Smith finally had a breakout year in a tumultuous 2022
Remember when we thought a pandemic season two years ago was crazy? Man, 2022 had it all. The return of Tiger Woods, the founding of a controversial golf league, the disappearance (and reappearance) of one of golf’s most beloved figures and so much more. But now let’s take a breath. Here, we’ll look back (and look ahead) at the 10 most memorable moments of 2022.
No. 10: Nelly Korda’s rollercoaster year ended with promise for 2023
No. 9: How Tom Kim stole the show at the Presidents Cup
No. 8: How Lydia Ko rediscovered her game in 2022
No. 7: Rory McIlroy was an absolute force
No. 6: Scottie Scheffler is a major champ
No. 5: Cam Smith’s breakout year
The season that changed Cam Smith’s life began in earnest with the shank that nearly undid it.
Smith clung to a precarious lead as he stood on the 16th tee box on Monday at the Players Championship. He was up by three strokes, but a charging Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey had applied some pressure. Even par through the treacherous closing stretch would be enough to close things out, but getting to even wasn’t promised.
In the traditional flavor of TPC Sawgrass architect Pete Dye, each of the Players’ three closing holes — 16, 17 and 18 — attempts to goad players into round-altering mistakes. On No. 16, danger looms down either side of a narrow chute, but a good drive can be the difference between an eagle look and a snowman. For Smith, barring a crazy development, a par was all but guaranteed.
But then he swung his driver.
At impact, Smith’s tee shot on the 16th sounded like an egg dropping from a second-story window — a hollow crack that called for an immediate recoil. The ball had barely started its ascent by the time Smith reached out to the left to indicate its direction.
The shot was a disaster. The ugliest, nastiest tee shot anyone in the final few pairings had hit all day. “That is a … quacker,” David Feherty chimed in hopelessly as the ball ricocheted into the trees. In all, his tee shot traveled 179 yards. If not for a handful of friendly pines, it might have traveled just as far in the wrong direction.
Eventually, Smith reached his ball to find himself the recipient of the luckiest break of the tournament: a gap in the trees wide enough to advance the ball back into the fairway. A few minutes later, Smith struck his shot cleanly out of the pine straw, and the rest is history. He would go on to win the Players by two strokes, winning in emotional fashion in front of his family, who returned from his native Australia for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in time for the tournament.
Little did he realize that a few months later, the learned experience from the 16th hole near-disaster would come in handy. In late July, Smith found himself clinging to a late lead again at the Old Course at St. Andrews in the 150th Open. He’d just made five straight birdies to vault from “out of contention” to “solo leader,” stunning the Old Course faithful in the process. After blasting his drive on a perfect line on the 17th hole, Smith played his approach a club too short. He faced a nasty chip — over the famed Road Hole bunker — in order to preserve his lead. This time, though, he hardly blinked.
From the greenside, Smith pulled putter and whacked his ball back onto the safety of the green. Then, from 10 feet, he drained the par putt for good measure.
That would prove to be the difference for Smith, who claimed an Open Championship victory over Rory McIlroy for his first major win, ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the world in the process.
“I think, to win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career,” said Smith, grinning ear-to-ear. “To do it around St. Andrews, I think is just unbelievable.”
Unbelievable, and as it would turn out, very crucial for Smith, who departed just weeks later to LIV Golf for a reported $100 million payday, his newfound major championship exemptions undoubtedly playing a role in the decision.
“For me, the PGA Tour is a great place,” Smith said later. “It’s a great tour that does really good things. But as you look back, Adam [Scott] has been one of the best golfers in the world for 20 years and I just think it’s really weird for them [PGA Tour] to not have an event [in Australia] just because of him,” Smith says. “Then you have Jason [Day], Marc [Leishman], there’s a bunch of guys they could have done so much for. The Aussie crowd gets around it so much … But I just don’t think it’s that profitable for them and that’s kind of the reason behind it all.”
He played the fall season for LIV, tapping a cool $7.3 million on top of an already-profitable 2022, and rode off into the sunset with a season-closing victory at the Australian Open.
It was that sorta year for Cam Smith, who watched as his Midas touch turned supernova. The 29-year-old may never reach this level of success again, yes. But then again, with some $12 million in on-course earnings in 2022, he may never need to.
Thank god for that shank.