For at least the next 12 months, the flag of Australia will be flying high over world-famous TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
The flag will be there courtesy of Cameron Smith, who rode the ultimate roller-coaster round to a THE PLAYERS Championship triumph, netting $3.6 million, the most money ever awarded at a PGA Tour event, coming from behind to beat India’s Anirban Lahiri by one stroke.
It was the fifth career title for the 28-year-old, and the second of the 2022 season. Back in early January, his winning score of 34-under at the Sentry Tournament of Champions was a PGA Tour record.
Heavy rainfall, and strong, chilling winds forced a Monday at the PGA’s flagship event, with the first round not being completed until mid-day Saturday. The carnage took out a number of the world’s best, particularly those who were unfortunate enough to begin the tournament in the afternoon wave, including Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, and Brooks Koepka, who all missed the cut.
Among the all-time up-and-down final rounds, Smith’s was especially up-and-down. Beginning the day in sixth place, two strokes back of the 54-hole leader Lahiri, Smith exploded out of the gates to vault into the lead with birdies on each of the first four holes. His par on 5 would be his only on the front nine, as he birdied six and then bogeyed 7, 8, and 9 to make the turn at 2-under.
Then, just as he did on the front-nine, Smith birdied each of his first four holes on the back nine to get back out front by himself. Pars on 14, 15, and 16 gave him a two-stroke lead with two to go.
Arriving at the par-3 17th hole “island green”, perhaps the most iconic hole in all of golf, with a two stroke lead, Smith would have been expected to play the hole conservatively. Instead, he unthinkably went right of the flag, where there was just 12 feet separating the hole and the , mawater, and landed just over four feet away. He hit his birdie putt to stay two ahead of Lahiri, who also birdied the hole.
Then on the par-4 18th, a hole where Smith had not found the fairway in any of his first three rounds, he again, ended up well into the rough, having to hit his second shot off the pine straw. His punch shot ran too hot, going through the fairway and into the water.
But just as it appeared he was on the verge of blowing the tournament, a pristine pitch into the green from his drop spot 59 yards away landed just three feet from the hole. Smith sunk the short bogey putt to finish with a 6-under 66 in the final round, tied for the second-lowest round in the Sunday field, and 13-under for the week.
As incredible of a bogey as that 18th hole was for Smith, it opened the door back up for Lahiri, who was playing in the final group, behind Smith. Looking for his first career Tour victory, Lahiri’s birdie chip attempt from 40 feet landed just a foot from the hole, which he converted for par. Smith had officially won the biggest title of his career, while Lahiri had to settle for the $2.18 million runner-up prize.
It was not just a two-man race on the back-nine however. Paul Casey held the solo-lead at one point on Sunday, and was just two back of Smith on the par-5 16th hole when he suffered a bad break: an otherwise incredible drive landed in someone’s divot from a pitch shot. Casey was forced to punch it out and carded a disappointing par. Playing in the same group, Smith was wild off the tee, but managed to save par, meaning Casey was unable to get closer. Casey shot 3-under 69 for the third consecutive day and finished in solo-third, two strokes out.
Former PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, made his first Sunday charge in a big-scale event for the first time in a while also. After making the turn at 2-under the 35-year-old birdied five of his first seven holes on the back, including consecutive ones at 15 and 16 to reach 12-under with two to play. However, he three-putted for bogey on the island green, and then double-bogeyed 18, finishing at 9-under and in solo-fifth.
The other top-5 finisher was Kevin Kisner, who shot a third 4-under 68 for the week to reach 10-under and finish solo-fourth.
The win was especially dramatic for Smith, as his family flew in from Australia to attend THE PLAYERS. Smith had not seen them in more than two years, due to COVID-related travel restrictions to and from Australia. He said after his round that playing golf was “second” for his week.
The PLAYERS: Leaderboard
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Cameron Smith -13 (-6)
2. Anirban Lahiri -12 (-3)
3. Paul Casey -11 (-3)
4. Kevin Kisner -10 (-4)
5. Keegan Bradley -9 (-4)
6. Harold Varner III -8 (-2)
6. Russell Knox -8 (-2)
6. Doug Ghim -8 (E)
9. Dustin Johnson -7 (-9)
9. Adam Hadwin -7 (-5)
9. Sepp Straka -7 (-5)
9. Viktor Hovland -7 (-3)
13. Daniel Berger -6 (-2)
13. Tyrrell Hatton -6 (-2)
13. Shane Lowry -6 (E)
22. Joaquin Niemann -5 (-2)
22. Tommy Fleetwood -5 (E)
26. Patrick Reed -4 (+1)
26. Will Zalatoris -4 (+2)
26. Sam Burns -4 (+4)
33. Rory McIlroy -3 (-6)
33. Abraham Ancer -3 (E)
33. Justin Thomas -3 (E)
42. Francesco Molinari -2 (+2)
42. Louis Oosthuizen -2 (+4)
55. Scottie Scheffler +2 (+4)
55. Jon Rahm +2 (+5)
How Cameron Smith Won The PLAYERS Championship
He did not win THE PLAYERS off the tees. Smith hit just 7 of 14 fairways on Sunday, and hit less than 50 percent for the week, which was last in the field among those who made the cut.
However, blessed with one of the Tour’s best short games, putting made the biggest difference for Smith. He one-putted eight of his final nine holes and for the week, gained 11.5 strokes to the field with his putter, ranking first in the field. His much improved approach game (he is sixth on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green) helped greatly as well finishing the week fifth in strokes gained on his approaches.
For the week, Smith’s 24 birdies, including 10 on Sunday, led the field, and even with 11 bogeys he was able to prevail.
Cameron Smith’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 290.6 yards (35th)
Fairways: 42.86%, 24/56 (123rd)
Greens: 62.50%, 45/72 (82nd)
Putts/GIR: 1.556 (1st)
SG-Off Tee: -5.189 (68th)
SG-Approach Green: 6.660 (5th)
SG-Around Green: 1.396 (19th)
SG-Putting: 11.521 (1st)
SG-Tee to Green: 2.866 (35th)
SG-Total: 14.388 (1st)
Scores: 24 Birdies, 37 Pars, 11 Bogeys
What Winning The PLAYERS Means For Smith
The victory jumped Smith from 10th to a career-high of 6th in the world rankings, and into the second spot in the FedExCup standings.
Where his win should really help him is in regards to his confidence in big events. In his major championship career, Smith has finished in the top 10 on four occasions without a win, highlighted by his T2 finish at the 2020 Masters. Three of those four top 10s were recorded at The Masters, meaning he will be very much considered among the favorites at Augusta next month.
Cameron Smith’s 2022 Season
Cuts Made: 7
Wins: 2 (Sentry TOC, PLAYERS)
Additional Top 10s: 2
Money: $5,797,375 (1st)
Points: 1,354 (2nd)
World Rank Before/After: 10/6
Monday’s Stars at Sawgrass
Just one player in the field bettered Smith’s 66, and it was by three strokes. Two-time major champion Dustin Johnson started his final round on the back nine making the turn at 2-under before absolutely exploding on the front-nine (his back-nine) with five birdies and an eagle to shoot a 9-under 63, not only the lowest round on Sunday, but the lowest round recorded by anyone the entire week.
The 24-time Tour winner vaulted a whopping 50 places up the final leaderboard, from T59 to T9. Johnson’s round was 13 strokes better than his Saturday 4-over 76.
Tying Smith’s Sunday 66 was three-time Tour winner Max Homa. Another player starting his day on the back nine, the 31-year-old birdied five of his first seven holes, and had eight birdies on the day to shoot his 6-under. Homa jumped 35 spots up the final leaderboard from T48 to T13, just one stroke out of the top 10.
One of the favorites coming into the week, Rory McIlroy shot the last of the three 66s in the field in round 4. The world No. 7 began the week with three consecutive 1-over 73s, but looked much, much more in control on Sunday with a bogey-free round to move 28 spots from T61 to T33.
World No. 1 Jon Rahm, whose T9 at last year’s PLAYERS was one of 15 top-10s on the 2021 season, survived the early carnage to make the cut, but surprisingly did not factor into THE PLAYERS leader mix this week. Any hope he had of a strong finish was dashed when the Spaniard quintuple-bogeyed the par-4 4th hole, twice hitting shots in the water. A variety of birdes and bogeys on his other 17 holes lead to a 5-over 77 that dropped him 29 spots from T26 to T55.
The winner of last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and two wins in his last three starts, Scottie Scheffler was unable to keep his hot play going at TPC Sawgrass, with a second-round 76 resulting in making the cut by just a single stroke. After rebounding with a 68 in the third round, the world No. 5 posted another 76 on Sunday, which dropped him 20 spots from T35 to T55.
Sam Burns held the 36-hole lead and was in a tie for second place going into the final day. Unfortunately for the LSU product, he got off to an atrocious start, playing his first seven holes in 3-over from the final pairing. A double-bogey on the island green led to a 4-over 76, plummeting Burns 24 spots from T2 to T26.
“That was probably the big key today, to be honest. It kept me in it. Obviously, I made plenty of birdies, had to make a lot of good par putts at the end, and yeah… it’s definitely the strength of my game, and sometimes I may lean on it too much, but it’s nice to see them go in.”
– Cameron Smith, THE PLAYERS Champion