The eighth hole at RACV Royal Pines Resort was designed precisely for this purpose but when Cameron Smith hit his tee shot into the water left of the green at the 307-metre par 4, his title hopes appeared to sink with it.
Yet a miraculous recovery, after his third shot with a sand wedge bounced back off the flagstick to the front of the green, allowed Smith to keep pace with leader Jordan Zunic and eventually claim the Australian PGA Championship title and a cheque for $237,500.
In a year to remember for Australian sporting Cameron Smiths, the 24-year-old Queenslander punctuated his maiden win on the US PGA Tour – May’s Zurich Classic in partnership with Jonas Blixt – to claim the maiden individual title of his career and continue his rapid ascent up the world golf rankings.
“I tried to stay aggressive all day,” Smith said as he cradled the Joe Kirkwood Cup. “With the lead that Jordan had I thought that I had to stay aggressive no matter how close I got to him. “I didn’t quite hit the [tee] shot I wanted, just pulled it a little bit. I had a perfect number for my drop and hit the bottom of the pin and I was like, Am I not meant to win this thing? I don’t know how long [the putt] was but it was a fair way and that kept the momentum going. That was probably key actually.”
Smith only claimed the outright lead for the first time in the tournament when he made a birdie at the 71st hole, emulating Sergio Garcia’s exuberance at the 1999 US PGA Championship at Medinah by running after his second shot from the right side of the fairway and seeing it stick 10 feet to the right of the hole. After placing his tee shot on the final hole safely in the middle of the fairway, Smith backed off his second due to an unruly spectator who had been repeatedly sneezing in his backswing and according to Smith was “telling me not to choke”.
“I don’t know what he was trying to achieve. I guess he was from New South Wales,” added Smith, who was wearing his customary maroon shirt for the final round.
When Zunic’s birdie putt missed to the right Smith had the chance to win in regulation but his putt for par from five feet missed to the left without touching the hole and the Aussie PGA went into extra-time for the third time in four years after the pair finished level at 18-under par.
An exquisite chip from Smith from the left side of the raised 18th green down to a metre saw the pair trade pars at the first playoff hole and when both failed to hit the green in regulation the second time around – and Zunic’s par putt lipped out on the left edge – Smith stepped up to claim the Joe Kirkwood Cup with a putt from four feet.
— PGA of Australia (@PGAofAustralia) December 3, 2017
Admitting that he got carried away earlier in the year with his win at New Orleans, Smith declared his continued support for the Australian events and that winning for a second time won’t change his mindset in future.
“This will be on my schedule as long as I have my card and full status in the US. I’ll definitely come down and play the two or three that are here,” he said. “Seve (Ballesteros) is on there, too, so to be on the same trophy as Seve, (Greg) Norman, Wayne Grady, Pete Senior, Brett Ogle, the list goes on… I just hope I can do half as much with my golf career as they did with theirs. Winning won’t change me much this time; it did last time. I got ahead of myself a little bit, thinking it was the easiest game on the planet and that I’d go out there and win every week.
“I had a battle through the middle of the year and didn’t play that great so the key is to keep doing what I’m doing and not expect too much … and not get ahead of myself.”
Given the Sunday shootout between the pair, it was almost inevitable that the champion would be decided after extra holes. The final round was brought forward by three hours in order to avoid a severe thunderstorm that was due to hit south-east Queensland mid-afternoon and it was a slow start for the overnight leader. After seeing three shots disappear from his lead in the final two holes of his third round, Zunic gave up another on the first hole on Sunday, allowing Smith to draw to within two shots with 17 holes still ahead of him.
The margin was back out to three when Smith three-putted the par-3 second to make bogey but from that point the pair embarked on a birdie blitz across the front nine that had the swelling gallery out early enthralled. They exchanged birdies at both the third and fourth holes to separate themselves from a pack that never really gave any great chase, made three each at the short par-4 sixth before Smith’s sublime second shot into seven set up a birdie that reduced the margin to two.
Taking on the reachable par-4 8th, Smith hit driver into the water left of the green but even after his third shot ricocheted off the flagstick down to the front of the green he made one of the great par saves of his career to date to avoid dropping further behind Zunic.
Zunic had his own stroke of good fortune when his second shot into the par-5 bounced off a cart path but pulled up just short of the lake to the right of the green, but from that point both players struggled to assert any authority.
A bogey by Zunic at the 10th saw Smith take a share of the lead for the first time all week who, after bogeying the par-5 12th, made birdies at the 13th and 17th to be the outright leader with only a hole left to play.
Adam Bland briefly popped up to turn the duel into a three-way fight with birdie at 16 but finished a shot outside the playoff when he made par at his closing two holes. He also finished just shy of claiming the PGA Tour of Australasia Order of Merit, that honour falling to West Australian Brett Rumford.
Sergio Garcia’s first tournament in Australia in seven years finished in somewhat disappointing fashion with a final round of 2-over 74 to be tied 24th, Nathan Kimsey and Dale Brandt-Richards sharing the round of the day with 65s.