When Cameron Smith reflects on 2020, there is a mix of emotions. A PGA Tour win of special significance and a runner-up finish at the Masters is a year most pros would happily claim, but 2020 wasn’t that simple. Not for anyone.

In some ways, his four days at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January served as a microcosm of Smith’s season. A bogey followed by a triple was not how he wanted his year to start, yet by Sunday night – after he had bested Brendan Steele in a playoff – Smith owned the record for the worst start by a PGA Tour winner since the advent of ShotLink in 2003.

His final full-field outing also necessitated an amendment to the history books, as the 27-year-old became the first player to record four rounds in the 60s at the Masters, albeit five strokes behind world No.1 Dustin Johnson.

“It’s been up and down for everyone,” Smith reasoned when asked how to articulate his roller-coaster year. “I obviously wanted to keep playing golf before COVID struck but I was pretty spent, to be honest. After the Aussie summer, Presidents Cup and then I go and win in Hawaii… there was so much up and down mentally.

“When all of this (the COVID-19 pandemic) started in March, it was so up in the air. No one really knew what to think of it. It was just crazy, especially over here (in America). It’s just been a really weird year. Hopefully January 1 comes and someone helps us out and we can get back to our lives that we’ve all had before this.”

Smith’s Sony Open triumph set in motion a run of Aussie success around the globe that injected a sense of expectation within golf fans back home that 2020 would indeed be a year to remember. Lucas Herbert and Marc Leishman both won on Australia Day, Wade Ormsby claimed a second Hong Kong Open, Min Woo Lee underlined his star power with an astonishing display of ball-striking at the Vic Open and Adam Scott set his sights on a second green jacket when he won the Genesis Invitational in his first start of the year.

But as golf’s biggest events loomed large, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. And halted any momentum Smith thought might lead to a multiple-win season. A PGA Tour winner alongside Jonas Blixt at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in 2017, Smith craved a victory on US soil that he could call his own and saw his win at Waialae Country Club as just the beginning.

“That was always one I had in the back of my mind,” Smith conceded of a maiden individual title. “Obviously I’d won the tournament with Jonas a couple of years ago but I still didn’t have one by myself. It was one that I wanted to tick off, so to do that early in the year – and I usually love the entire West Coast swing – I thought I could have really done something about it the next month or two.

“Once we ticked that first one off, I thought we could get a couple more. It wasn’t to be.”

Smith shot one-over 73 in the opening round of the Players Championship… and then didn’t play golf again until playing nine holes on the Monday of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club three months later. That he missed the cut in his first three starts back and didn’t log a top-20 until his seventh tournament after the shutdown came as no surprise to his coach Grant Field.

Smith himself acknowledges that in hindsight he shelved the sticks for too long, but the lessons he takes away may deliver an even better player in 2021.

“I basically just went fishing every day in quarantine,” Smith reveals. “It was nice to put the clubs down, but in hindsight I probably should have done a little bit more to prepare myself for when I came back.

“I honestly can’t wait for 2021. I think I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve ever played. I just need to get my longer stuff sorted out. I need to be a little bit more finely tuned with the driver and give myself more opportunities. That’s basically all I need to have a great year.”

Part of that will consist of a quick return to Augusta National where he will attempt to go one better than in 2020.

Although it was Smith’s third top-five finish in a Major, handling the pressure that comes with a share of the 36-hole lead is another weapon the Queenslander can carry into the new year.

“I definitely felt the heat a little bit,” said Smith, who rose to a world ranking of 27th after his tie for second. “I try to keep things as relaxed as possible on the golf course, but I still felt like there was a lot of pressure on me for sure. I was really happy with how I handled the pressure. Just talking crap between shots and trying to get your mind off it and then once you’re at the ball it’s all go.

“I think I know the course well enough now that I know where all the misses are. I know the right shot to get to certain pins and I enjoy being creative around there. I just love being there. I can’t wait.”

BONUS TIP: Start strong in 2021

Because I can’t come home this summer, it’s going to be a completely different preparation compared to 2020. Last year was so intense with the Presidents Cup and then the Australian PGA; it felt like I had three days off and then we were in Hawaii. I do like to put the clubs down during a break, but a couple of weeks before a tournament I’ll get back out and do a lot of chipping and putting. I don’t do much on the range because I’ve always been someone who would rather go out on the course and hit shots rather than beat balls for hours on end. If you want to start strong this year, invest in your short game. I promise it will pay off. – Cameron Smith

• For the full list of our Player of the Year winners, grab your copy of the January 2021 edition of Australian Golf Digest, on sale now.