14 Jun 2023 | Professional golf |
Australian-style US Open plays to Smith's strengths
by Tony Webeck
The raised eyebrows were a dead giveaway that Cameron Smith didn’t yet know everything there was to know about Los Angeles Country Club.
And why it might just represent his best shot at winning a US Open.
A club famous as much for how few people have been inside its gates as for the two golf courses found within, LA Country Club has elements that make it more Melbourne Sandbelt than the lengthy behemoths typically favoured by the USGA.
The 330-yard par-4 sixth is akin to the 10th at Royal Melbourne’s West Course in reverse, a downhill, left-to-right short par with a blind tee shot as opposed to Royal Melbourne’s 312-yard right-to-left uphill par 4 that yields just as many double bogeys as it does birdies.
But it is the 15th at LACC, a par 3 that can play as short as 90 yards, that really caught Smith’s attention.
The world No.9 and reigning Open champion didn’t play it on Monday – he played just seven holes on the front nine – and was apparently unaware of its looming status as one of major golf’s shortest holes.
“On 15 it can play 90 yards? That’s good,” Smith reasoned. As is the case on the Sandbelt, LA Country Club elevates its defences the closer you get to the green, angles and options providing an equal examination of shot selection and execution.
It’s why Golf Channel commentator and four-time DP World Tour winner Paul McGinley believes this week, unlike any other US Open, plays to the strength of Australians such as Smith.
“I’d be looking at Cameron Smith. He’s going to be relishing this kind of stuff,” said McGinley on Live From The US Open, McGinley having played extensively throughout Australia in the late 1990s, including a tie for fourth at the 1999 Australian Open at Royal Sydney Golf Club.
“Anybody that has played a lot down on the Sandbelt of Australia, it’s got that feel, it’s got that look about it.
“It’s firm, it’s fast, it’s got pin positions tucked behind bunkers and if you miss you’ve got these run-off areas and not this rough that we normally have for US Opens.
“I think this is very much an Australian-style US Open and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see those Australian players performing well here this week.”
Smith, too, liked what we saw in an albeit brief viewing at first glance on Monday.
Buoyed by a top-10 finish at the US PGA Championship courtesy of a closing 65 on Sunday, holes such as six and 15 tickle the Queenslander’s creative fancy no-end.
“I typically love short par-3s,” Smith added.
“I think a lot of the greatest courses that we play around the world all have a short par-4 and a short par-3, and they can end up being kind of the trickiest as well.
“I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing that. I think everyone’s favourite par-3s are those 9-irons and wedges where you really have to dial it in and hit a good shot.”
Smith first shot to prominence in the US on the back of a tie for fourth at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, an eagle at the 72nd hole effectively securing his place on the PGA TOUR.
It too was a far cry from what would be considered a typical US Open venue and demanded an array of shot-making beyond the formula of fairways and greens.
The varying grades of Bermuda rough and the sandy wasteland strewn throughout the course will ensure those who play from the short grass will be rewarded but Smith is once again ready to rise to the challenge.
“I’d like to think that I play my best golf around kind of tough golf courses,” said Smith, whose best finish since his top-five on debut is a tie for 38th at Winged Foot in 2020.
“I expect it will get really firm and fast, and you might have to be a little bit creative from the fairways to get to some pins. Just be really accurate with your landing distances and knowing how far the ball is running out.
“For me, the driver has always been the one club where it gets me in trouble in the US Open and probably the US PGA.
“You have to drive the ball strong. I think that’s where a golf tournament can get away from me, but the driver is starting to feel really good. There’s a few opportunities around here to make birdies, so I think that falls into my hands a little bit.”
Following his victory at the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Queensland, Smith missed the second cut at the Australian Open’s return to the Melbourne Sandbelt in December.
The 29-year-old was slow out of the blocks to start 2023 but with his strong finish at Oakmont and a playoff defeat to Dustin Johnson at LIV Golf Tulsa, has gradually played his way back into form.
With his Open defence now just a month away, coach Grant Field is adamant that he is doing the work to win a second major championship.
“He’s too good. He’s a competitor. Anytime he plays, he’s competing,” said Field when asked whether there was a danger Smith was underdone.
“He’s still working every bit as hard. There’s very few weeks that he doesn’t bring his best effort, that’s for sure. And the thing with Cam, he’s such a good competitor, when it’s game time, he’s all in.”
Smith has been drawn to play alongside defending US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick and reigning US Amateur champion Sam Bennett in the first two rounds and will commence his first round at 6.32am Friday morning AEST.
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