07 Apr 2022 | Professional golf |
Behind Cam's quest for Masters immortality
by PGA of Australia
By Tony Webeck
A straw poll of Aussie golf fans will tell you that there are only two storylines at this year’s Masters: Will Tiger tee it up and can Cam win?
On the surface, the answer to both appears to be a resounding, ‘Yes!’
Such is his nature, Cameron Smith will start as both an underdog and a tournament favourite when The Masters begins late on Thursday night in Australia, the speculation and attention generated by five-time champion Tiger Woods’ unlikeliest and latest comeback drowning out all other aspects of this particular April at Augusta National.
Not quite a top-20 player in the world just four months ago, Smith added a PGA TOUR scoring record 34-under at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January to his quartet of scores in the 60s at the 2020 Masters as marks never previously reached on tour.
Like fellow Queenslander Adam Scott, he won THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass three weeks ago despite hitting a ball into the water on 18 yet his press conferences are punctuated by questions about his now signature mullet and love of a XXXX Gold.
Pundits, bookmakers and even past champions expect Smith to be in the mix when the tournament unofficially starts “on the back nine on Sunday”, the combination of creativity and lack of any mental fragility a potent mix.
“His short game is obviously his real strength in the bag but his mentality probably is his real strength overall,” 2013 champion Adam Scott told AAP earlier this week.
“He’s a fantastic competitor and I’d get behind him if it was all on the line. I think he can get it done. He’s got that look to me.
“And he’s got something about him. He’s not just winning events. He’s setting records along the way.”
One of those records in Smith’s sights is the chance to become the only player other than Woods (2001) to win THE PLAYERS Championship and The Masters in the same year.
He can also join Greg Norman, Jason Day and Scott as Aussies to have reached No.1 in the Official World Golf Ranking with a green jacket on Sunday and a leaderboard that leans his way.
In addition to winning, Smith needs current No.1 Scottie Scheffler to finish lower than tied third with at least one other player and Spain’s Jon Rahm to finish worse than outright second.
It’s a scenario that seems both incomprehensible and completely predictable to those who have ridden parts of Smith’s journey along the way.
Aaron Wilkin was a teammate of Smith’s in the Queensland team that won the 2013 Interstate Teams Matches at Tasmania Golf Club just two weeks after Scott’s playoff victory over Angel Cabrera.
The reigning Australian Amateur champion, Smith was Queensland’s No.1 player that week… and everybody knew it.
“Obviously he was a gun but at that Interstate Series he was starting to play pretty good. He was turning the heat up a bit,” says Wilkin, a 19-year-old Smith going undefeated that week up until the final where he lost 5&3 to New South Welshman Brett Drewitt.
“If you asked anyone who was going to play the PGA TOUR, they would have said Cam.
“You always say that you want to turn pro and play the PGA TOUR but it’s always like a dream; he’s actually doing it.
“I never thought we’d be saying that he’s got a scoring record at The Masters, he’s won The PLAYERS, he’s top-five in the world… That’s pretty incredible.
“He’s proven it now and we’re like, ‘He can win.’ If you said that a couple of years ago you’d be like, ‘Yeah, righto.’”
Team manager for that Interstate Teams win, Matt Toomey got a taste of Smith’s brilliance four years earlier at the 2009 Queensland Amateur.
Paired together for the first two rounds of the stroke play section at Pacific Harbour Golf and Country Club, Toomey was tasked with keeping the card of a 15-year-old with a difference.
“We teed off 10. He birdied 10 and 11 and then I birdied 12 and 13 trying to keep up with him,” Toomey recalls.
“Then he birdied 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 and turned in 29.
“I don’t think I’ve ever since marked a scorecard where I’ve put 29 down for nine holes.
“I’m playing with this 15-year-old kid and thinking, This is crazy.”
Smith wasn’t the only star on the rise at those Interstate Teams Matches nine years ago.
Lucas Herbert, Ryan Ruffels, Nathan Holman and Todd Sinnott were all members of the Victorian team. New South Wales boasted Drewitt and Jordan Zunic while the West Australian team featured Curtis Luck, Jarryd Felton, Brady Watt and a 14-year-old phenom named Min Woo Lee.
Those players have all enjoyed success at various levels since yet there was an undeniability to Smith’s trajectory from a very early age.
“He was easily Queensland’s best prospect in a number of years but you never know,” adds Toomey.
“You just never know quite how it’s going to pan out but there was certainly a lot of hope for Cam around that time.
“Of all the guys we had playing for us, if you had a six-footer that you needed to make, Cam was the guy you went to.”
For a player such as Herbert who is making his Masters debut this week (and boldly claimed that he believes that he too can win), Smith’s ascent to the elite of world golf is a blueprint that he hopes to follow.
“Cam was probably two or three years in front of me development-wise but we took similar paths in that our journey wasn’t direct to the PGA TOUR. We had to go via some smaller tours in some quite different parts of the world,” says Herbert, Smith going via the Asian Tour while Herbert spent time in Asia and Canada early in his career.
“He is someone I feel I can follow in his footsteps a little bit.
“It gives me the confidence that if he can get to No.6 in the world and in there challenging for No.1 in the world then maybe that’s something that I can do in the years to come.
“It’s good for Australian golf and gets everyone back home more interested in the game and playing better and gives us something to cheer about when he plays like he did at Sawgrass.
“Everyone’s a winner with the way Cam is carrying himself of late.”
Yet for those who were there at the beginning, green jacket or not, he will remain quintessentially Cam.
“The Cam that you see on TV is the Cam that everybody knows behind the scenes,” says Toomey.
“We knew he was pretty good, but he was just a bogan from Wantima, really,” Wilkin quips.
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