The reigning champ flexed his muscle, but the contenders are lining up for a shot at the title after a drama-filled second day of the Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines Resort.
A birdie blitz on the front nine put defending champion Cameron Smith in position to better Jordan Zunic’s course record of 64 set 12 months earlier, but it was a mature show of restraint that enabled him to shoot a seven-under 65 and take a one-stroke lead into the third round on Saturday.
Smith’s former Queensland junior teammate Jake McLeod seemed destined to own sole possession of the lead at the halfway mark when he made a putt from six feet for eagle at the par-5 12th, but a wayward tee shot on his penultimate hole that was deemed out-of-bounds saw him finish one shot behind Smith and level with Marc Leishman at eight-under par.
Australian Open runner-up Dimitrios Papadatos is one shot further back in a tie for fourth along with first round co-leader Matt Jager and Queenslander Christopher Wood, who made a late charge up the leaderboard with a superb six-under 66 propelled by four birdies on the front nine and three more on the back.
International guests Harold Varner III and Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston thrilled the large Gold Coast galleries with spectacular hole-outs at the par-4 eighth and par-3 16th, respectively, Johnston lifting the roof of the Volkswagen marquee with his chip-in from left of the green.
But while the overseas raiders and his World Cup teammate Leishman prepare to mount their charge, the current holder of the Joe Kirkwood Cup is the one best placed to triumph on Sunday.
“I had no idea about the course record, to be honest. I was just trying to do my best,” Smith said.
“I decided I wanted to get to 10 (under par). That was kind of my goal before Friday’s end, so one off, not too bad.
“Seven-under, you can never complain about seven-under.”
Cameron Smith was on fire today! 🔥🔥
— PGA of Australia (@PGAofAustralia) November 30, 2018
As Leishman, Papadatos, McLeod and Varner all found trouble on the easiest hole on the course by being aggressive, Smith tempered his hot hand early with judicious shot selection on his inward half.
Refusing to be tempted by tucked pins on the 13th, 14th and 16th in particular, Smith avoided any disasters and displayed the type of course management that makes him a rising star in world golf.
“I kind of got caught up in that yesterday with those last two holes,” Smith said of his bogey-bogey finish on Thursday.
“It’s very easy when you’re playing good to go at the pins. They’re not that long a shot and you know you can hit them but if you miss it on the wrong side you’re absolutely done. I just reminded myself that 10-15 feet right of the flag pin high is probably the best shot you can hit. And if you do hit it inside that then you’ve hit a bad shot.”
Playing in the group behind Smith, Leishman could hear the roars in the early morning as the local favourite lit up Royal Pines but after successive rounds of 68 is confident his experience will count for plenty as the intensity rises.
“A lot of golf to play and the course is only getting tougher,” Leishman said of his position through 36 holes.
“It’s starting to speed up, which is good. The sun’s out, it’s warm, it’s only going to dry it even more. Hopefully we all play well and fight it out, and I would love to be there at the end and hopefully in front.
“There’s a lot of golf to go, it’s only halfway done. Don’t want to get too far ahead of myself but as long as I’m playing good and feeling good on the greens more importantly, which is good.”
Given he very nearly quit three holes into the tournament on Thursday, that Johnston made the cut was a feat in itself, the popular Englishman now a legitimate contender trailing by just four shots.
“I’m just going to try and keep doing what I’m doing, just trying to keep my emotions out of it and yeah, just plod around and play golf,” said Johnston, who made back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16 to finish the day at five-under.
“Just try and keep that feeling what I’ve got. Just play and see what happens, man.
“I was happy that it worked out yesterday. I managed to take that to the range this morning and the swing felt better. No destructive shots and managed to put a score together.”