Cameron Smith didn’t have much time to speak with the media before his fourth round started on Monday. But he did have enough time for a prediction.
“The course is still soft,” he said. “There’s going to be a ton of birdies.”
No one made more in the final round than the 28-year-old Australian.
The streaky Smith used two different birdie binges to separate himself from the field — and make up for one brutal stretch — to win the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass and claim the biggest victory of his career.
As for the winner’s check? Yes, that was substantial, too. Smith’s now the owner of the largest single-event payday in PGA Tour history, cashing a $3.6 million check from a $20 million purse.
Smith shot a six-under 66 in Monday’s final round to finish 13 under, besting India’s Anirban Lahiri by one and Paul Casey by two.
Before Monday, Smith, who is ranked 10th in the world, hadn’t had a marquee PGA Tour win. In fact, his four previous PGA Tour victories came in just two states: Louisiana and Hawaii. He’s won the Zurich Classic team event twice, the Sony Open in 2020 and the Sentry Tournament of Champions two months ago. The ToC is a strong field made up of the previous season’s winners, but it’s also a limited field. And Kapalua doesn’t threaten with the same type of treachery TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course taunts golfers with.
But Smith wasn’t easily intimidated by the fearsome Pete Dye test. He’s one of a handful of players in the field who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and calls Sawgrass his home course. He practices there more than he plays, he says, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know its diabolical layout well.
“I’ve birdied every hole around here a million times it seems like, and it’s important not to get too ahead of myself,” he said on Sunday.
Besides the local knowledge, it’s hard to discount the friendly confines of a home base. A wild week of rain delays and storms erased much of the action on Thursday and Friday, forcing pros to kill time and wait it out the best they could. Smith was able to do so at home.
“I don’t know what I would have done for a couple of days there if I was in a hotel room,” he said.
But it wasn’t until this year when the convenient narrative of Smith contending at Sawgrass came to fruition. His previous best finish didn’t come until last year, when he was 17th. Earlier this week, Smith said he used to find it hard to treat this week like a tournament.
“It’s all fun and games most of the time [when I come here],” he said on Thursday. “I find it hard to switch on, so I’ve made it a point this year to act as though I’m at a tournament.”
After the third round finished up around 11 a.m. local time on Monday, Lahiri lead alone at nine under. Smith was seven under and among a handful of contenders, but teeing off in the threesome ahead of Lahiri and the final group, Smith went on a tear. He birdied the first four holes and five of the first six to get to 12 under and lead Lahiri by two.
He rolled in birdie putts from everywhere, and through four holes Smith had 66 feet, 2 inches of made putts — nearly nine feet more than his entire total from his third round.
Then things got really crazy. It all made sense, of course, that a week marred by disastrous weather, unpredictable winds and stars missing the cut was complete with a nutty, rainy Monday as they all battled for a silly amount of money.
Just as Smith seemed as if he was starting to pull away — and as yet more rain showers blew through — he brought the field back in. He bogeyed 7, 8 and 9 and made the turn in nine under. Soon Casey, Lahiri and Keegan Bradley, who made four straight birdies around the turn, joined him at the top.
Eventually Smith, after playing the first stretch brilliantly and the final three holes of the front nine with several mistakes, reverted to the former style of play on the back nine.
He had a kick-in birdie on 10 and an easy up-and-down from off the green to birdie the par-5 11th to retake the solo lead at 11 under. After Lahiri eagled the par-5 11th to tie him at 11 under, Smith made his third straight birdie on the 12th. Then he made it four straight on the 13th to go up by two.
Quick, a brief summary of Smith’s first 13 holes of the final round:
Hole Nos. 1-4: Birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie.
Hole Nos. 7-9: Bogey, bogey, bogey.
Hole Nos. 10-13: Birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie.
Then, Smith got even more clutch. He missed fairways and greens on 14 and 15 but knocked in key par saves on both, first from 14 feet and then from eight. Smith made his mistakes off the tee (68th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee), but he made up for it with his putter. He finished first in Strokes Gained: Putting, picking up 11.521 shots on the field. In the fourth round alone he had 136 feet of made putts.
After Smith parred 16 — after badly missing the fairway off the tee — he had two crucial swings left: his tee shots on 17 and 18. The first might have been enough to seal the tournament. Facing the iconic par-3 island green, Smith took on a hero line and stuffed an approach from 135 yards to four feet.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t push it a little bit,” Smith said. “I was trying to hit it over the bunker there and hold it up against the wind. The wind didn’t really do much for maybe three quarters of the shot, and it held it up right there at the end. Yeah, that was just awesome.”
He made birdie, but it wasn’t over.
Leading by three, Smith’s punch-out second shot on the 18th trickled into the water, but he was able to get up and down from 57 yards to save bogey.
Behind him, Lahiri rolled in a clutch birdie on 17 and now needed to birdie the 18th to force a playoff. He missed the green short and right, and when he failed to chip in for birdie, the title — and one huge check — belonged to Smith.