Tour Confidential: Cam Smith’s breakout win, 17th hole shade, Tiger’s big speech

Cameron Smith looked mostly undaunted on what was a mighty test at TPC Sawgrass.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we break down Cameron Smith’s win at the Players Championship, Jay Monahan’s victory lap and Tiger Woods’ latest achievement.   

1. After five days of stop-and-start golf at rain-soaked, windblown TPC Sawgrass, Cameron Smith finally prevailed at the Players Championship, closing out his career-biggest win with a gutsy tee shot to four feet on the watery par-3 17th hole followed by a shaky bogey on the par-4 closer. What jumps out at you about how Smith took down what is the strongest field in golf?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Smith’s golf. I knew he was good but never appreciated him at close range before. Love the way he goes about his business, the no-fuss decisiveness, the rhythm with every club, most especially putter. 

Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephymelton) The oldest cliche in golf says “Drive for show, putt for dough,” and today, Smith proved it to be true. His performance on the greens was so impressive all day, and he closed it out with eight one-putts over his final nine holes. Putt for dough indeed ($3.6 million, to be exact).

cameron smith in final round of players championship
Cameron Smith’s throwback style thrives at wet, windy, wild Players Championship
By: Michael Bamberger

Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): Those last three holes will stick with me, in particular the sniped tee shot at 16 (par), the stuffed (but blocked) tee shot at 17 (birdie) and the unfathomable punch-out water ball on 18 (bogey). It wasn’t exactly a slam-the-door finish, but then again, he made just about every putt of consequence. Guy is a ruthless assassin on the greens.        

Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): Putting has always been Smith’s strength and it was again this week. But you don’t win an event like this without a tough mindset. Smith showed that. That tee shot on 17 was pushed, for sure, but he was still playing an aggressive line. And then he pulls driver on 18 when he could have easily played a safer shot. Lots of confidence and swagger. I’d expect no less from a man bold enough to wear that mullet and ‘stache. 

Dylan Dethier, senior, writer (@dylan_dethier): The best putters in the world aren’t necessarily on the PGA Tour, but once you narrow down golfers based on elite ball striking ability (the true determinant of Tour pros) then the best and hottest putters will dominate. This week Cameron Smith was both an elite irons players and whatever is better than elite with his putter. He set the record for strokes gained putting at TPC Sawgrass while also ranking fifth in the field approaching the green. That more than offset an uneven performance with his driver. This is all a long way of saying that Smith blew my mind with his Sunday putting performance and I couldn’t believe where he hit his tee shot on No. 17.

​​James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): What jumps out to me is how bold it was. Smith never backed down from a shot — including the ones he definitely should have backed down from (17, 18 tee). I’m not sure if that makes him a genius or just very lucky, but I was impressed by his fearlessness.

Lots of confidence and swagger. I’d expect no less from a man bold enough to wear that mullet and ‘stache.  Josh Sens

2. The top end of the leaderboard was notable for its lack of star power; a host of big names — Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth among them — didn’t even make the cut. Was the surprising leaderboard more a result of the challenging, uneven conditions or merely the big guns not bringing their best stuff?

Melton: Golfers are creatures of habit, and this week’s routine was anything but ordinary. I’m willing to chalk it up to the stop-and-start nature of the event, combined with brutal conditions when they actually did get to play.

Sens: A combo, I’d say. The draw was huge this week, obviously. But as Justin Thomas showed us, it was possible to slog through the brutal weather if you were at your absolute best. Spieth, to cite one example, looked like he was searching for something that might have been missing even in good weather. Conditions were nasty. But I doubt any of those guys who missed the cut would blame the weather alone for how they finished.

Dethier: I think they actually would have a fair case to blame the weather. The very worst micro-wave (fun term!) to be in was essentially playing No. 17 at the very beginning of play on Saturday. That meant Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler in one group; it meant Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas in the next. Koepka, Schauffele and Morikawa missed the cut, while McIlroy and Scheffler made it on the number. We can praise Thomas’ superhuman efforts while also acknowledge his compatriots got the absolute worst of the weather.

cameron smith swings club
The Players Championship never found its rhythm … until it did
By: James Colgan

Bamberger: More than I can ever remember before at Sawgrass, you had to drive it in play and hit an iron hole high and pitch it and chip it with finesse. It was a time-machine tournament. 

​​Bastable: And we thought Bay Hill would be the toughest test on the FLA Swing! What a two-week stretch. It was so fun to watch the guys have to manufacture shots, and as Bamberger suggests, a taste of what a tech rollback might look like. Intriguing, right?

Colgan: Honestly, I think it was a matter of expectation. Golf’s best players expected a firm, fast test, and they were too slow to adjust to the uber soft, slow conditions that greeted them. To Dylan’s point though, the tee times did them ZERO favors.

Cameron Smith, Players champion. getty images

3. When the conditions were at their wildest, windiest and wettest, the famed 17th hole gave players fits; on Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee argued that, in strong winds, the hole becomes unfair, because there is too much luck (or bad luck) in play. Did this week change your opinion, for better or for worse, of one of the game’s most iconic holes?

Bamberger: It’s an odd one-off hole. It’s terrible and fun. My opinion didn’t change. I wouldn’t want it on my home course. But at this point in the proceedings, it’s earned its place in the game. It’s embedded in the culture of golf and, like the over-the-top fans in Phoenix, has not inspired a lot or really any notable copy-cat behavior. If you had to, you could chip one off the tee and play an 80-yard second. Or figure out some way to keep it dry.

Melton: I thought the chaos was lovely. Carnage is fun!

Sens: If you believe that great designs should offer options, then the 17th has never been a great hole. But it’s always been an entertaining hole, and this week maybe more than ever. It has actually seemed more unfair to me in some years past, when the green was kept so firm and the collar so shaved down that many good shots bounced off the green into the water or spun back in the drink. This week, at least, it was all nature’s doing. I’m willing to call a course setup unfair. Bad weather is just the luck of the draw.

Brooks Koepka
‘What a mess’: Wind makes island-green 17th at Sawgrass nearly unhittable
By: Nick Piastowski

Bastable: Right. Love me some Brandel, but not this take. He was stuck on the notion that random wind gusts could unfairly punish otherwise well struck shots. Well, yeah, but that’s the nature of golf, whether you’re playing an island-green par-3 or a coast-hugging par-5. Mother Nature is as much an opponent as the other 143 players in the field. It’s a cruel, unfair game. Ask Paul Casey.   

Dethier: The hole is what it is. There’s no redesigning it; it’s an island green. And the entire point of the island green is that sometimes, guys will hit the water instead of the island. I thought that watching golfers try to flight different types of shots into the wind made for incredible theater. I was also glad it wasn’t me out there. It didn’t look fun and it wasn’t always fair, but that’s the game.

Colgan: As a kid growing up in the Tiger era, the 17th at Sawgrass was one of the few holes I knew by heart, and one of the first I wanted to see with my own eyes. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize its architectural significance leaves a lot to be desired, but let’s let kids be kids.

The famed par-3 17th on the Stadium course. getty images

4. What Players Championship storyline didn’t get the attention it deserved?

Bamberger: Shane Lowry’s ball-toss. What an arm!

Melton: The sheer absurdity that was the Golden Trophy man reenacting the “Better than Most” putt on the telecast. Wild to see what’s possible with modern tech.

Sens: The fact that I had HIdeki Matsuyama in my pool and his back gave out on him. Talk about unfair!

Dethier: The fact that Keegan Bradley played such spectacular golf that he was arguably the best in the field through 70 holes were it not for an extremely bizarre two-stroke penalty. Also the fact that Dustin Johnson went from 59th to 9th in the final round with a nine-under 63.

Joel Dahmen and Viktor Hovland disagreed with Daniel Berger's drop at No. 16 at the Players.
‘It’s a wrong drop’: Top pros clash over controversial drop at Players
By: Dylan Dethier

Colgan: Knew you’d find a way to reference Keeg here somewhere, Dylan. Anirban Lahiri gets my vote. He played impossibly tough golf over two very long days at a laughably unforgiving golf course, and he didn’t even lose the golf tournament — he got beat. Made a fan out of me and much more importantly, $2.2 million in the process. Good for Anirban.

Bastable: It’ll get more attention in the coming days and weeks but the drama around the Daniel Berger drop was delicious. It’s unclear from the footage where his ball crossed the hazard line on 16 so all we’ve got is one player’s word (Berger’s) vs. two (Viktor Hovland’s and, to lesser a degree, Joel Dahmen’s). You can expect more litigation on this matter, and please, please, give us a Berger-Hovland singles match in Rome.

5. The regrettable weather aside, the week served as a bit of victory lap for PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who, while meeting with the press, preached that his tour is about “legacy, not leverage” — a not-so veiled shot at Phil Mickelson’s dealings with a would-be Saudi-backed rival tour. Did anything surprise you about Monahan’s remarks?   

Bamberger: The forcefulness of them.  

Melton: It seemed as though Monahan wants to push the message that the Saudi League threat has been completely neutralized. But I’d be surprised if the breakaway league talk is done for good. The Tour won the battle, but I think the war is far from finished.

Sens: Much of what the commissioner has said in the past about rival leagues has focused on legalities and logistics. It’s either us or them, basically. Jump ship to a rival and you’re no longer in our fold. The “legacy, not leverage” comment was different. It wasn’t just a jab at Mickelson. It was the remark of a man staking claim to the moral high ground.

jay monahan addresses media
In turbulent tenure, Jay Monahan has been part commissioner, part chameleon
By: Michael Bamberger

Dethier: I appreciated him putting a stake in the ground. He sounded like a man who is confident in his business and in his product. Moral objections aside (I’m not saying they should be, but just for a moment) if the Tour can beat its rivals on its merits alone, that’s a huge victory. I think the dramatic Monday finish actually did just that. And the emotions that Anirban Lahiri showed down the stretch and Cameron Smith showed in his post-round interviews reinforced what Monahan said about the gravity of these events.

Bastable: I was little surprised Monahan and Phil haven’t spoken since Phil’s failed mutiny. Phil could still be of value to the Tour, but you have to wonder if he and Jay will ever break bread again.

Colgan: It’s easy to forget the PGA Tour hasn’t publicly said ANYTHING about rumored rival tours since their inception. For Monahan to respond at all is noteworthy, for him to respond so forcefully is nothing shy of shocking.

6. Earlier in the week, Tiger Woods was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, with his 14-year-old daughter Sam introducing him. What did you learn about Woods at the Wednesday evening ceremony that you didn’t already know?

Melton: The tidbit about Comic-Con was pretty great. Who knew Tiger was such a superhero nerd?

Bastable: Agree with that. Delightful nugget from Sam. I spent three days fruitlessly scanning random Comic-Con snaps online in search of TW in a batman costume. I also learned that Tiger is a polished public speaker. He went for nearly 20 minutes without notes. That’s not easy to do, even when you’re speaking from the heart.

Sens: Actually, being a superhero nerd seems very much onbrand for Tiger. I’m not sure Tiger told us anything new about himself. We’ve gotten bits and pieces of it all before. But this was all condensed into a single moment that clearly meant a ton to him. Despite being a prepared speech, it seemed more raw and honest than a zillion answers he has given to impromptu questions.

tiger woods during hall of fame speech
With one heartfelt speech, Tiger Woods revealed many new sides of himself
By: Michael Bamberger

Dethier: I learned that when Tiger Woods looks back on his golfing life he doesn’t instinctively jump to any professional victories. I was watching from the third deck as Woods spoke and kept waiting for him to mention specific moments in his illustrious career — but he never did. Instead he told stories from his childhood. He talked about his family. He spoke to a legacy of hard work and dedication. I learned that Tiger Woods categorizes himself far differently than we categorize him. 

Bamberger: That he became the first ball-hunter in history to find a brand-new balata ball on a Navy course. Truly, I took his remarks as parable, not reported fact, and found them moving.

Colgan: I learned Tiger has grown more willing to discuss the role race has played in his career. That’s noteworthy.

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