Cameron Smith wins at TPC Sawgrass on Monday
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Shortly before Tiger Woods took the stage Wednesday night for his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame at the PGA Tour headquarters just down the road, the sky opened up and dotted the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, the emerald setting for The Players Championship.
It was just the start of a chaotic and bizarre week at the PGA Tour’s flagship event, where Mother Nature, Old Man Winter and Tom Brady reduced the tournament to near submission.
Somehow, through aggravating rain on four of the tournament’s five days, ferocious Saturday winds, freezing Sunday morning temperatures and the NFL’s greatest QB announcing his retirement was ending on Sunday afternoon to erase most of all the other sports coverage the players have lived through.
And with an upside-down Monday fitting the week, local resident and now world number 6 Cameron Smith, the man from Down Under who sports the baddest mullet in the game and who prefers to fish instead of golf , outlasted his buddies and won the biggest tournament of his career against the strongest field of the year.
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“It’s going to take a while to sink in,” Smith said. “It was obviously a long week. Today, I think I kind of held on to that.
Smith, the only player to shoot four rounds in the 60s in the same year in Masters history, birdied 10 and had 13 putts before going 66 under par 66 to finish at 13 under and win by one on Anirban Lahiri from India.
His last putt came from 3 feet on the 18and to save bogey after inexplicably hitting his second shot under the trees in the water while holding a 3 shot lead. After taking a fall 58 yards from the green, Smith threw what turned out to be his last winning margin.
“That was probably the big key today, to be honest,” Smith said of his putting; he only needed 24 in the final round. “It kept me in it. I made lots of birdies. I must have made a lot of good putts over there at the end as well.
“That’s definitely the strength of my game. And sometimes I maybe lean on it too much, but it’s nice to see them come in.
Continued: Berger, Dahmen and Hovland warm up in pinfall argument
So in the end, Smith, who won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January by scoring the lowest-over-par score in a 72-hole (34-under) tournament in PGA Tour history, won 3 $.6 million on the $20 million purse, the largest in Tour history.
He did so in front of his mother, Sharon, and sister, Melanie, who arrived from Australia three weeks ago. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Smith hadn’t seen either since the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia.
“My main priority was really spending time with them, and golf was second in those few weeks,” he said. “It was nice to have company back home, I guess, in the rainy delays. Last week we spent a lot of time hanging out, showing them around Jacksonville.
“They obviously knew I was to play this week so they weren’t really expecting much, but it’s good to come here and play well for them.”
It was a thrill ride for all the Smiths.
En route to the scoring tent, Smith chained four straight birdies twice on his final round – the foursomes starting the first and 10and tees – but did a turkey of bogeys from the seventh to ninth holes. He had a par in his first 13 holes, then putted under pressure to save the par from 14 and 8 feet on the 14and and 15and Holes.
Then, at the ever thrilling par-3 17and, he fired his tee shot straight at the flagstick, the ball coming to rest 4 feet from the cup. From there he made his 10and birdie of the day to go up 3.
“I would be lying if I said I was aiming there,” he said. “I was probably aiming 10 feet to the left of that. But I still wanted to stay aggressive, I still wanted to birdie.
And then he survived the 18and hole.
“Just a hole for me that doesn’t really suit me,” Smith said. “Hit driver just because I just wanted to get him down as far as possible. If he flipped, I was going to get a short shot, and it just wasn’t flipping.
“I thought the kick (of the punch) was actually going to come out pretty soft because it was among pine straw, and it came out really good. I was obviously very frustrated with myself. For a bit of an easy chip shot, probably the easiest shot I’ve had all day, hitting it in the water was quite frustrating.
“Just kind of grouped together. I knew I had to go up and down to really close it.
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Lahiri, who was ranked No. 322 at the start of the tournament, finished a stroke back at 12 under after a 69, his chip on the 18and from 40 feet to come within a foot of forcing a playoff.
“I’m surprised how calm I was, to be honest,” Lahiri said. “I was just happy to be in a really good frame of mind. Just stuck to my processes and routines. That’s what I worked on.
“I want to win. I’ve been here seven years; haven’t crossed the line yet. It’s definitely a monkey I want to get rid of my back. Today was as good an opportunity as any I made mistakes today that I could have avoided, but that’s golf.
“It’s been a really positive week for me going forward.”
Paul Casey finished with a 69 to finish at 11 under.
Kevin Kisner, who had coach John Tillery on the bag after his regular caddy Duane Bock had to stop after six holes with a stomach bug, shot 68 to finish at 10 under.
Keegan Bradley, who won member The Grove XXIII last December with partner Michael Jordan, whose Jumpman logo is adorned on Bradley’s golf shoes, was trying to win for the first time since the 2018 BMW Championship, which s It also ended on a storm-ravaged Monday in Aronimink near Philadelphia.
His effort was valiant, especially after he took a two-stroke penalty on Saturday for mis-marking his ball after the wind moved it. The 2011 PGA champion birdied four in a row from ninth – which completed a streak of 12 birdies in 20 holes – to tie the lead. But he had to use his putter three times from 71 feet on the 17and and bogeyed and threw his second shot in the water on the 18thand for double and fell to 9 cents.
“I am so disgusted. It was tough,” Bradley said. “I played really well today. Really well all week. I had a two-stroke penalty on Saturday and I was still there. I’m sorry, I’m struggling to find words to say.
“I’m quite disappointed, but proud of the way I played.”
Monday’s final round began at 11 a.m. local time – just nine minutes after the end of the third round – 7 p.m. and 35 minutes after the start. That was better than the 54 hours and 16 minutes it took for the first round to end, better than the 27 hours and one minute it took for the second round to end.
Fourteen players started the last 18 within three strokes of the lead. Of course, there were brief showers in the afternoon. But there was also stellar golf, as five players held at least a share of the lead and the field averaged 71.5 strokes.
Smith started the final round two shots off the lead, but took the lead four holes. And then held on. The man of low expectations now looks at himself in a different way, his game having propelled him to the rank of world No. 6. And with five PGA Tour titles and two Australian PGA Championships under his belt, he and many others expect much more.
“I feel like I’m playing the best I’ve ever played,” he said. “It’s a bit weird to think like that. In the last three or four years I was the guy who went from 20th to 40th in the world, and then all of a sudden being sixth is a bit weird. I feel like I got the job done and I feel like I did a lot of work on my body and I took the time.
“It’s good to see that all of this is paying off.”
As he walked away after speaking with the media, gold championship gear in his hand and the long week behind him, Smith had one thing on his mind.
“Sleep,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t slept in five or six days. It’s obviously been a long week. I’m sure there will be a few beers around the fire tonight, but I can’t wait to sleep well.