Playing for fire-ravaged Australia, ‘things just fell into place’ for Smith

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After the first two holes of the Sony Open, Cameron Smith was already 4 over par. With two holes remaining, he was still two shots behind Brendan Steele.

But with an eye on the troubles facing his homeland, Smith persevered through both situations and found a way to lift the trophy at water-logged Waialae Country Club, defeating Brendan Steele in a playoff for his first individual PGA Tour victory.

It was an unexpected turn of events given how well Steele played for much of the weekend, and it came despite the 72nd hole being engulfed in drama for the second time in as many weeks. Smith needed to hole a 9-foot putt on the final green simply to force overtime; he did so with gusto, then authored the decisive shot of the week when he escaped from under a tree on the first extra hole and rolled his approach to within 15 feet.

It capped a breakthrough week for Smith, 26, who won the Zurich Classic team event in 2017 when paired with Jonas Blixt but had been searching for his first taste of solo triumph on Tour.

“You just had to hang in there. No one was playing good golf today, it seemed like,” Smith told reporters. “That’s been one that I’ve wanted to tick off for quite some time. I’ve been out here four or five years now, and to finally say that I’ve won an event by myself is quite good.”

With weather a factor all week, Waialae was a soggy shell of its former self during the final round. Mud patches were abundant, the 18th green had to be squeegeed as the leaders lined up their final shots and the playoff was shifted to the par-4 10th because of the poor playability of the home hole.

Smith, Leishman among those pledging donations for Australian bushfires

Those wet conditions offer a vivid juxtaposition to those experienced in Smith’s native Australia, where brushfires continue to ravage much of the continent. Smith and fellow Aussie Marc Leishman spearheaded a charitable donation effort based on birdies and eagles this week and encouraged other players to join; Smith’s uncle is one of thousands of Australians directly impacted by the fires. The Tour offered to match player donations this week and the International Team from last month’s Presidents Cup chipped in $125,000. 

Smith’s victorious play translated into $10,500 in donations based on his personal scorecard, and he shared with the trophy by his side that his early-week efforts to scrape back into contention were fueled in large part by a desire to chip in as much as he can toward ongoing relief efforts.

“I’ve always been quite good at not giving up. I’ve never felt the need to kind of mentally check out in any way,” he said. “I started bogey, triple bogey (on Thursday), and then finished that day even par and progressed from there. So yeah, I mean, it was a big fight all week basically.”

International Presidents Cup team donating $125K to bushfire relief efforts

Smith has been in and out of the top 50 in the world rankings over the last few years, reaching as high as No. 24 last spring. But despite his team win with Blixt a few years back and numerous triumphs in Australia, he’s largely viewed behind the likes of Leishman and Adam Scott when it comes to Aussies playing regularly in the U.S.He narrowly missed out on a top-50 ranking at the end of 2019, meaning he entered the new year without a Masters invite secured.

But prior to that he was a surprising force in front of partisan crowds at the Presidents Cup, where his normally stoic and soft-spoken persona flashed a rare air of emotion. And thanks to his comeback victory on Oahu, he can safely book travel for Augusta in April.

With an Olympic berth now a realistic goal, Smith can ditch the asterisk that comes with having a lone Tour victory come from a team event. He’s a winner on the biggest stage in his own right, the product of an unlikely comeback during a week when the resiliency of his homeland has been on full display.

“Things just fell into place,” Smith said. “Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck to kind of fall your way, and you never know what can happen.”