PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Cameron Smith’s mullet was blowing in the wind. And you know what that means: TPC Sawgrass was drying out.
Crazily, astonishingly, the slender and bold Australian golfer, from a long line of slender and bold Australian golf talents — looking at you, Greg Norman and Adam Scott! — hit driver on 18 when another golfer might have hit a 2-wood or a 3-hybrid or a 4-iron, on account of the lake on the left and the pine needles on the right.
But Mr. Smith didn’t come to PVB to lay up!
Bam! Right on the pine needles.
Now he had a hook lie. (Ball above his feet.) To a hook fairway. (Tilting toward the lake.) With a hook club on a hook path. (Slightly hooded iron, struck from the inside.) Riding a hook wind. (Right to left.) Plus, that blowing mullet and those drying fairways.
Is this ball ever gonna stop?
Rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling.
Across the fairway. Through the courtesy rough. Across the top of the wooden bulkhead.
Like that old Nike spot where Rory and Tiger played shots into champagne glasses.
But this one was in the lake.
You probably have done this math in your golfing life: one on the pine needles, two in the drink, three out. And now you’re looking at the pitch shot of your life, with a $3.6 million payday on the line. OK, not you. Cam Smith, aged 28 and seven months, born and raised in Queensland and now living in Jacksonville, Fla.
Let’s review his collegiate playing record.
Well, that was fast.
Dude turned pro at 19. You know, to play golf for money! Just like Bruce Devlin and Graham Marsh and Greg Norman and Adam Scott.
Quick note, for you historians of PGA Tour paydays. The most dominating performance in the history of golf was brought to you by Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, when he won by 15 and earned $800,000.
When Smith was on 18, Anirban Lahiri, aka The Man Who Does Not Quit, had not yet made his 2 on 17, the par-3 with the island green. The likable golfer from India was in the day’s final threesome. Smith was in the group ahead of him. Smith’s birdie on 17 got him to 14 under and, with Lahiri at 11 under at the time, all Smith really had to do on 18 was not pull a van de Velde.
(See: 1999 British Open, not won by Jean van de Velde, le golfing Frenchman who made a 6 on 18, resulting in a three-man playoff.)
Smith almost pulled a van de Velde.
He almost did a lot of things.
His first 13 holes featured one par! You talk about walking a tightrope.
Birdie on 1.
At this point, he had to be channeling Tiger. Just two questions: What’s the course record, and which way to the first tee? (Tiger, in his Hall of Fame remarks.)
Well, they give you an escort to the first tee here, if you’re a player in the Players. As for the course record, it’s 63, now shared by Dustin Johnson, who finished his record-tying round Monday with a nifty 9th hole pitch-in.
PAR! Yes, Smith made par on 5.
Another birdie on 6, just because.
A bogey on 7.
Another on 8.
Another on 9.
He went out in two under par, but it had to be about the damnedest 34 ever recorded in this tournament.
Birdie on 10. In the rain, of course. The theme of the week, but this time the shower was only passing.
Birdies on 11 and 12 and 13.
After two pars on 14 and 15, the par-5 16th hole at Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass, aka the Stadium Course, represents your last best chance to make a birdie. Cam Smith needed one. He was leading. But, you know: cush.
Once, 16 at Sawgrass played like 13 at Augusta National. Dye wanted righty pros to draw a driver or hook a 3-wood and have to think about whether you wanted to go for the green in two, with a lake to the right of the green. Those days are so over, both at 16 at Sawgrass and, to a lesser degree, at 13 at Augusta. Now the players, one after another, hit a high bombed driver almost over the left trees. Smith looked to do the same. But he hit a dead pull off the tee, right into the trees. It rattled among them. Everybody else took the right bridge off the tee. He took the left. The tee shot went all of 180 yards.
The four shots he hit after that were as big as anything he did all week. Punch shot out through a corridor that was maybe 15 feet wide.
Smoked an iron from 240 yards to the front left of the green. Two-putted from 50 feet, the second one a four-footer.
They should give you half a mil just for that.
So he made a par where he might have made a birdie, on 16. He made a birdie where par is a damn good score, on 17. He made a bogey on 18 but did it the hard way — with a world-class pitch — when he could have made an easy one. With Lahiri birdieing 17 himself, he needed that bogey. He won by a shot. It was great March-in-Florida golf.
Smith couldn’t say what the money meant to him, not directly. But he did offer this, describing his mother’s family and his father’s family: “They’re working-class people who have had to work their whole life to live. That’s just kind of what I grew up in.”
Tiger Woods, in an interview with Mike Tirico of NBC Sports that aired last week, said almost the exact same thing:
“I’m a kid from Southern California that really didn’t have a whole lot.”
Smith has a penguin on his shirt, an old-timey neutral grip, a flowing swing with no hit in it, irons with an oil-can finish, a mullet haircut, a mustache, a Jacksonville address, a cold one on tap and maybe another after that. A throwback. How refreshing.
It took a while to get there, but this Players was golf. In the end, this thing got good. It was the course, the moment, the leaderboard. The winner.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com