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It's not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but the size of fight in the dog

Insights

As Australia’s best golfers gather for the Australian PGA in Brisbane this weekend, the rise and rise of two-time winner Cameron Smith has given them every reason to believe, writes Michael Blucher

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And just like that, he’s in the top 10 golfers in the world – the unassuming, unrelenting “kid” from Wantima with the straight drive and the crooked smile.

The golf nuffies probably would have watched Cam Smith in Hawaii last weekend, but for the benefit of those who didn’t, what an exhibition it was. Golf’s mangy dog, the little Aussie blue heeler, barking, biting, and brawling to keep the World No 1 Jon Rahm at bay in the final round of the Tournament of Champions to win by a single stroke.

The bookies said it wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. Rahm, the imposing Spanish Mastiff, would simply monster his gritty little opponent into submission. The television commentators clearly thought so too – they spent 17 holes waiting for the mangy dog to yield, before finally conceding on the 18th green, “it doesn’t look like he’s going to.”

Correct. The second most famous Cam Smith in south-east Queensland, finished an astonishing 34-under par, a USPGA tour scoring record, to go alongside his feat at the Masters in 2020, when he became the first player in history to post four rounds in the 60s – en route to finishing second behind Dustin Johnson.

Only now, after his fourth US tour win is Smith starting to get the plaudits he deserves. For most of the eight years he’s been playing professionally, he’s been the “Aussie afterthought”, the kid who most notably grew up in the same part of world as the true superstars of the game downunder, Greg Norman, Adam Scott and Jason Day.

However in the past few seasons, he’d gone from blob par to headline act. Even with his now trademark mullet (just like his golf – top 10 in the world) those within the highest echelons of the game are taking him seriously. Very seriously.

Put him in a dog fight, and Smith just doesn’t know when to give in.

As comparatively unfashionable as his game might be, his current standing in the world rankings is no fluke. He’s been trending for ages.

Over the past four years, he (and his great mate Mark Leishman) have been markedly better than poster boys Adam Scott and Jason Day, also good friends. And Greg Norman, for all his flamboyance and charisma – you wonder what he would have given for just a sniff of Cam Smith’s steeliness and composure under pressure?

The Shark probably would have finished his playing days with a few more trophies in a cabinet, even a green jacket or two in his closet.

It’s been interesting, as a casual observer, to chart Cameron Smith’s progress in the game.

I first encountered him as a 17 year old – one of 20 or so wide-eyed amateurs forced to sit in a room down on the Mornington Peninsula – while I prattled on the complexities of professional sport, and what they might expect when they turned pro. And became “famous”.

The session went surprisingly well – the country’s best amateurs particularly enjoyed the vision of Tiger spitting on a green mid-tournament, and the compilation of Phil Mickelson’s playful interactions with gallery.

None of them could contemplate anybody ever wanting their autograph. Or being interested in taking a “selfie”. Rookie athletes never can, until it happens.

I remember Smith came up afterwards and introduced himself. Even said thank you. “I was never much good in a classroom,” he admitted. “But that was interesting.” Even if he was bullshitting, it was impressive.

One of our top female professionals Rachel Hetherington also presented on the day. “Yeah, watch him go,” she said of Smith. “A few good breaks and he could be anything.”

Wind the clock forward six years, and I’m standing behind the first tee box at Augusta, watching Smith preparing to tee off in his first Masters. Still looking very much like a teenager. (BTW, did I tell you? I’ve been to the Masters…!)

But before you stop reading, out of either envy or disgust, the story gets better.

On Friday, due to the conspiring forces of fate and good fortune, I’m walking around the course with Grant Field, Cam Smith’s coach. Field was watching on anxiously as his young charge courageously scrambled his way around the unfamiliar Augusta layout, all along remaining just inside the cut-line.

On the difficult 11th hole, Smith pushed his drive well right, his ball coming to rest deep in the towering pines. Dead as a doornail.

“Bloody hell. This is my weekend, right here,” Field joked, doing his best to make light of the potentially dire situation. Post a big number and Smith’s tournament was all but over.

After a long conversation with his caddie, the rookie Australian pulled out a six iron.

“Where’s he’s trying to hit that,“ I asked.

“I can only guess he’s spotted an opening in the canopy of the trees. Must be trying to thread the needle.

“Smart play?”

“Bloody stupid. It’s a punch-out, every day of the year.”

Moments later, there’s a “thwack” in the pine needless, as Smith launches his ball, up, up, up through the pines, hooking it some 45 degrees, over the grandstand behind the 12th tee, landing it safely on the only flat area in front of the green.

A chip and a putt, and Smith walks away with a par – on the hardest hole on the course.

“Yep – clearly the smart play,” his coach said, tongue firmly in cheek.  “That’s why he’s playing and I’m watching!”

That six iron, however insignificant it’s become in the context of the mastery that Smith has produced around Augusta since his first outing in 2016, typifies his approach the game.

He plays without fear or repercussion, remaining focused on the challenge at hand, rather than the consequences of falling short, the default position of many professionals under extreme pressure. Even the biggest names in the game fall victim to second guessing and self doubt.

Significantly last week, as Smith was sleeping on his first round overnight lead in Hawaii, the annual junior tournament bearing his name was getting underway at Wantima, 20km north of the Brisbane CBD.

Some 140 young golfing enthusiasts, looking to kick start their career, just like Smith did, on those very same fairways, all those years ago.

Whenever his schedule permits, Smith gets back to Queensland host the event. The Cameron Smith Junior Classic is a prequalifying tournament for the Greg Norman Junior Masters.

Who knows – one day they might have more equal billing.

You sense Smith is just getting started.

He might still be the second most famous Cam Smith in south-east Queensland, but he’s closing the gap.

*The Australian PGA Championship is currently being played at Royal Queensland (Jan 13 – 16). Cam Smith is a two time champion of the event.

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