19 Jul 2022 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Symmetry in the rise of Cameron Smith

by Mike Clayton

Cam Smith Old Course image
Cameron Smith prepares to hit the crucial four-metre putt at the 17th on Sunday. Photo: Getty

Sixty-two years ago at the Centenary Open, Kel Nagle, playing only the fifth major championship of his career, faced a life-changing putt across the Road Hole green.

His playing career had been stalled by war and the reality making a living playing professional golf was, at best, precarious.

The security of a club professional’s job was the career path of most in the 1950s, and not until he won The Open did Nagle realise his potential as a player. The next decade saw him prove himself one of the best players in the world.

Nagle made that eight-foot putt for a four, parred the last (two putts from four feet) and beat Arnold Palmer by a shot.

Fate and timing put Cameron Smith in almost the same position at the 150th Open.

As Palmer – the Masters and US Open champion of 1960 – was the crowd favourite, so was Rory McIlroy, and this was supposed to be Rory’s celebration. Surely it wasn’t possible for the man who always looks like the best player in the world to go eight full years without adding to the four major championships he won before he had a grey hair.

His 36-putt Sunday might now be enough to turn the rest of it the colour of the stone buildings of golf’s most famous town.

Smith’s lead was hanging by a thread when his nine iron into the Road Hole finished in one of the many spots (bunker, or anywhere short of the bunker when the pin is directly behind, road or against the stone wall) that you don’t want to find on what is the greatest par-four hole in the game.

Short of the bunker, he had just enough room to sling a putt around the bank and get it almost as close as Nagle 62-years ago.

Miss it, make four at the last and likely it wouldn’t be good enough, but the Queenslander is the best putter in the game - his work on the greens in Scotland was beyond ridiculous - and he rolled his ball into the dead middle of the hole.

In this age and in the conditions of the day, the finishing hole on the Old Course is another half-par hole and a perfect drive left him with a long putt from the fringe up and over a daunting contour. It was sure to test the nerves of anyone faced with five minutes of golf with the potential to scar your memory for life.

Doug Sanders and his torturous three putts on the same green in 1970 knew how that felt.

Nor can one help but reflect on the US and Australian Amateur championships of 2013 and the fate of the four young men in the finals. At The Country Club in Brookline, Matt Fitzpatrick played off against Perth’s Oliver Goss.

Goss was bigger, stronger, hit it 20 to 30 yards past the skinny English lad who was, at the time, the second ranked amateur in the world but certainly not the overwhelming favourite.

But Fitzpatrick (now the US Open champion) beat Goss on the 15th green in the afternoon and both 18-year-olds were predictably playing professionally within a year. Goss went to what’s now the Korn Ferry Tour and almost, but not quite got out, and on to the main tour.

It’s a soul-destroying place to play professional golf for any length of time and after two full seasons (2015-16) he was done and out of the playing side of the game at an age younger than Graham Marsh was when he turned pro.

The same year at Commonwealth on the Melbourne sandbelt, Smith faced local Geoff Drakeford in the final 36-hole match. Drakeford was a bigger, stronger player who hit it at least thirty yards further (sound familiar?) and looked to be a far more likely winner to the partisan local gallery unfamiliar with the Queenslander.

When the Victorian drove it onto the 14th green in the morning and went five up not a single observer gave the teenage Smith a chance.

Instead, he kept driving the ball on to the fairways, hit one iron after another into the heart of the greens and make all the putts he had to make to catch up. Not only did his relentless golf wipe out the deficit, but they also shook hands on the 16th green.

Drakeford played on the Challenge Tour in Europe for about as long as Goss played the equivalent in the United States and, like Goss, is lost to the professional game.

The question is what would have happened to the careers of these four brilliant young players if the results had been reversed?

We’ll never know obviously but nine years on the winners are two of the very best players in the game and they’ve delivered two Opens the game won’t forget for a long time.

This has been a great year for Australian golf with Minjee Lee winning the US Women’s Open and ensuring she and Smith are ranked in the world’s top two players.

The first mixed-field Australian Open is at Kingston Heath and Victoria in early December and watching both on courses worthy of their talents should ensure it’s some celebration.

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