Being saddled with a famous or even merely a recognisable surname is never easy in sport. Just ask Gary Nicklaus. Yet for Elvis Smylie, any sense of expectation sits comfortably on his slender shoulders. The 18-year-old son of former tennis stars Liz and Peter Smylie marches to his own beat. But it’s one you’ll want to walk in time with because it’s likely to remain loud and resonant.
While most Australian golfers were shrugging off the COVID-19 blues and coming to terms with the news confirming we’re in for a lost summer of tournament golf, Elvis Smylie spent his spring thrashing amateur fields. He successfully defended his Keperra Bowl title by closing with a 10-under 62 to finish the 72 holes at 25-under par and win by 13 strokes. In the lead-up, he claimed the Queensland Stroke Play title by nine shots at his home club of Southport, where he plays off a plus-6 mark that often converts to a daily handicap of plus-7. Smylie didn’t beat depleted fields, either. Among the vanquished players were reigning Australian Amateur champion Jed Morgan and fellow promising players Louis Dobbelaar and Lawry Flynn.
Sport is full of parents who fawn over their children or who conversely push them to a breaking point. Liz and Peter Smylie do neither, largely because their backgrounds give them an understanding of the path sitting ahead of their son in a life centred on elite sport.
We’ll get this part out of the way early: he is named after Elvis Presley. What that means for him today and might mean in the future will become irrelevant when people start talking about his golf game instead of his moniker. What is already clear is how well equipped Elvis Smylie is at such a tender age.
“As a golfer, he’s definitely way more mature than most people,” Peter Smylie says. “He’s got an unbelievable amount of confidence and is self-assured without being cocky. Because he’s done all the hard work, I think he just feels like he’s where he belongs. Even Liz and I when we first saw him at the  Australian Open, we were a little bit surprised by how quickly he fell straight into it and how it wasn’t anything over-the-top for him.
“He was on a bit of a mission to get there in the first place. He’d played the Aaron Baddeley [International] at the end of 2018 and he lost by one shot, which would have put him straight into the Australian Open. He was so disappointed at the end of that round. He called us in tears and said, ‘I wanted that spot in the Australian Open,’ but he said, ‘I’ll win the Australian Junior – that’ll get me in.’”
The next April, Elvis did exactly that, carding a third-round 63 on his way to a five-shot victory at the 2019 Australian Junior, which fortuitously was held on his home course at Southport. His Australian Open dream had been delayed merely a year.
“He was on a mission,” Peter reiterates. “Everyone wants to win the Australian Junior, but he was so determined and so assured about winning it. He went ahead and won that and then everything was building towards playing in the Australian Open. He wanted to get into the New South Wales Open the week before; he got into the NSW Open and made the cut. He didn’t just want to make the cut at the Australian Open, he wanted to do well.”
Former touring professional and now course architect, golf scribe and occasional caddie Mike Clayton has known the Smylies for 30 years and offered to caddie for Elvis at the Australian Open last December. Although based on what he’d seen of the then-17-year-old’s play in the lead-up, he figured it’d be a short week.
“We were doing the Australian Open radio, so, having seen him play [at the Victorian Amateur and Port Phillip Open Amateur, where Smylie was a non-factor], I thought, It’s probably only two days – he’ll miss the cut. I can do the radio on the weekend, because it was only about three weeks later. But he just started ripping it. His first Australian Open, you’d think he would be nervous but he didn’t show any signs of that.”
What unfolded was an underrated Open performance that gave Clayton a full weekend’s caddieing work and Smylie an outside chance to lift the Stonehaven Cup. Rounds of 70 and 67 compiled while playing alongside former Masters champion Mike Weir and veteran Queenslander Rod Pampling put Smylie within five shots of Matt Jones’ lead at the midpoint.
“I’ve been working towards it. I’m not really overwhelmed,” Smylie said after two rounds. “I’ve played in some really big events before, so I’m not trying to overwhelm myself with the occasion. Obviously, it’s a really big event with some great names in it, so I’m not trying to think about it too much. I just want to play my own game and see what happens.”
Three costly errors during a Saturday 75 undid any hopes of an improbable victory before a hard-fought closing 71 gave the teenager a one-under aggregate for a share of 33rd. Remarkably, such a result placed him as only the fifth-best amateur for the week.
Clayton, who has seen more golf and mentored more golfers at an emerging level than many people realise, was impressed by Smylie’s game but was more struck by another of his qualities.
“Our age – and I was one of the worst – everyone was spitting the dummy, getting mad, would chuck clubs and carry on. This generation is so much better at that. They control themselves emotionally so much better on the golf course.”
That even temperament helped Smylie six weeks later at the Australian Amateur Championship at Royal Queensland, where Clayton caddied for him on the course he redesigned after his originally promised bag of Lukas Michel bowed out early in the matchplay rounds. “Elvis was better then than he was at the Australian Open, to the point where if you were to put him in the position he was in at the Australian Open this year – if he was where he was after two days – he’d have a shot at winning it.”
“When Elvis was really little, all he wanted to do was spend hours and hours and hours out on the golf course,” Peter Smylie recalls. “My first indication from him that he was going to do something special was when he played the Queensland Schoolboys Championships in primary school. After the first round he was five ahead and he said to me, ‘Dad, good players win these by a lot, don’t they?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘What do you call a lot?’ And I just threw it out there: ‘20 shots,’ just as a joke. I didn’t pay any attention to it but he was streaking everyone. It was only over three rounds, and he came up after his third round and said, ‘Dad, did I win by 20?’ And I looked at it and he’d won by 20.
“He’s a kid that everyone gets along with, but he’s got this unbelievable feeling of built-in confidence and desire to win. He’s a great kid but he’s selfish. And he’s stubborn. But the selfishness, you see it in a lot of the better sportspeople because they’ve got this long-term goal.”
The best illustration of that ingrained determination? We’ll let dad handle that one.
“One year when Liz was at Wimbledon commentating, we were having dinner over at Southport Golf Club with some member friends of ours at 7:30. And I got over there at 6:30 and I said, ‘Elvis, get changed. We’re going to have dinner at 7:30.’ And he said, ‘No, I want to go to the range.’ And I said, ‘The range is shut.’ To which he said, ‘No, there’s lights at Emerald Lakes. We can go over there.’ And I said, ‘Mate, we’re getting dinner.’ And he said, ‘No, I hit two left on 17 and 18. I’ve just finished and I want to go and fix it.’ And I said, ‘No, you can’t do that. We’ve got dinner coming up.’ And he said, ‘I’m going over there.’ So I had to drive him over there, it took him 15 minutes to fix it, we got back just in time to meet these guys for dinner, but there’s no way he was going to be able to enjoy dinner or focus on anything other than trying to sort that out before that night.
“I don’t know whether it’s good or bad having that personality, but he’s got his own way of doing things. He’s very stubborn but he’s also very loyal. He’s got a side to him that I’ve seen in a lot of successful tennis players and a few golfers. He’s got a way of doing things without being nasty to people.”
Both Liz and Peter played tennis professionally, and although Liz’s career reached far greater heights (she won three singles and 36 doubles titles, reaching career-high rankings of 20th and fifth, respectively), Peter transitioned into player management and so remained very close to the circuit. Both agree it is vital to get “those early decisions correct” when it comes to helping a child advance in sport.
Among the key choices they made concerned who should coach their son. That turned out to be a straightforward option: Ian Triggs. The decorated Queensland-based PGA professional has helped hone the techniques of, among others, Peter Senior, John Senden, Karrie Webb and Scott Draper, the former tennis pro who later in his career turned successfully to golf. Peter Smylie once managed Draper, making the connection an easy one.
“Recently, Pete showed Triggsy a video that he had taken when Elvis was about 7 or 8 and Triggsy got a smile on his face and said, ‘I’m really pleased to see that, because the natural tendencies of Elvis’ swing are still there,’” Liz says.
“Triggsy hasn’t taken the natural part of his game away,” Peter confirms. “Because one of his first lessons was with Triggsy.”
There is indeed a rhythm to Elvis’ motion that is mesmerising. But when he needs to step on a drive, he possesses plenty of power. At The Australian Golf Club last December, he hit a 7-iron for his second shot on the par-5 18th hole.
“Elvis wasn’t one of these kids that had a lesson every week – it’d just be every now and then, because Triggsy knew that Pete knew what he was talking about,” Liz says. “Then as he got older, Triggsy would say to Elvis or Pete, ‘Just take a video and send it through to me and we’ll have a look.’ So the gift that has been is that Elvis is really good at self-correcting if he’s in trouble. It’s almost like it goes against what a lot of coaches would say to a 10, 11, 12-year-old. They would say, ‘You absolutely need to come and see me every week and you need to do this.’ So it’s very different. But Triggsy was smart enough to know and Pete was smart enough to know that when you are travelling and when you’re away, you need to have an understanding of where your swing is and how to fix it.”
A young Elvis played soccer, tennis and golf, his parents giving him free rein to partake in all three sports. He played soccer two years above his age group, he was a natural at tennis and it would have been so easy for his parents to nudge him in that direction because they knew all the steps. “But golf was his passion,” Peter says. “He’d spend hours and hours chipping and putting where we used to live in those days, at the Glades on the Gold Coast. It was the one thing that he just loved.”
Another critical early call was Elvis joining Southport at about age 8 or 9. The layout is not long but is tight and asks good golfers to manoeuvre the ball and craft a variety of shots. It’s a skill he has learned with aplomb. “Length’s not really the massive thing with me – it’s more being able to control your shapes, controlling the flight of the ball and having a bit of fun with it,” he says. “That’s what I’m really just getting better at right now and I’ll continue to get better at it.”
These days, Elvis performs double duty at Southport Golf Club by also working 10 or so hours each week behind the bar, practising before and after his shifts. He’s equally likely to serve up a chipping tip as he is a plate of chips for his fellow members.
Meanwhile, the club held its prodigy in high regard from an early age. Southport is home to a group of members known as the “749ers”, so named because of the time they always tee off. They would often invite a young Elvis into their group if ever there were a vacancy as a way of welcoming and nurturing a keen young golfer. The 749ers still text him and keep in touch with him even though he doesn’t play in their group any more. It’s a pure, cross-generational golf trait Liz Smylie wishes would translate to her sport.
“I sometimes wonder if some of our young tennis players had grown up at golf clubs…”
So, do Elvis Smylie’s parents see crossovers from tennis that fit with golf?
“Every day. Every day,” Liz laughs. “Not technically, obviously, but certainly in your mindset and how you go about your business, what’s required, knowing that Elvis is setting his own bar at this point. You have to be willing to sacrifice. All those things are exactly the same – I don’t care what sport you do. Tennis, golf – if you want to be the very best at something, then you need certain characteristics, you need to go a certain way. And Pete and I see that every day.
“Elvis, from the youngest age – as all our children have (he has two sisters) – they’ve been surrounded by people, not necessarily golfers but tennis players, who are at the very highest level of what they do. So he’s been exposed to possibly a level of success that’s not the same as just a regular person. He’s seen what it takes to be really good, the work ethic and the sacrifice, so his level of success is possibly different to someone else’s level of success, even at a very young age. Because that just becomes a part of you when you’re exposed to it from a very young age.”
A logical line to draw is between the Smylies and two more tennis/golf families in the Ruffels’ and Kordas. While not as close to the Korda family (Petr won the 1998 Australian Open men’s singles title, while his daughters Jessica and Nelly have both already claimed the equivalent title in women’s golf), the Smylies and Ruffels’ do all know each other. Ray Ruffels, the former professional tennis player and coach and father of Korn Ferry Tour player Ryan and 2019 US Women’s Amateur champion Gabi Ruffels, was Australia’s national coach and accompanied Liz Smylie on her first representative overseas trip at age 17. Later, Peter Smylie managed Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde when Ray Ruffels coached the dynamic doubles duo.
Ryan Ruffels is four years older than Elvis, while Gabi is two years Elvis’ senior. Elvis has what is best described as a ‘texting friendship’ with the Ruffels siblings, given that their respective schedules rarely allow for much physical proximity. Ryan, for instance, sent a text to Elvis when he won the Australian Junior Championship to ‘welcome him to the club’, one that also includes Adam Scott, Jason Day and Cameron Smith.
Mike Clayton, himself a tennis fan, is another who sees benefits in such upbringings. “The advantage the Kordas have and the Ruffels’ and him is that they’ve all grown up around great sportspeople. Elvis has watched [Roger] Federer play since he was a little kid and obviously his mum was good. The Kordas… I remember watching Petr when he beat [Marcelo] Rios at the Australian Open; we were sitting dead opposite where his wife and Jessica were sitting. I obviously didn’t know it was them, but Jess was 4 or 5 years old, this tiny little blonde kid. She’s grown up around great sport her whole life – they all have.
“There’s not a hint of arrogance or, ‘Look how good I am.’ There’s nothing to be big in your boots about,” Clayton adds. “Elvis understands that there’s a long way to go between where he is now and let alone where his mum was, where [Ivan] Lendl was or Federer. There’s a massive gulf. But he knows how big it is and he knows how much work you’ve got to do to get there. I think he’s got the skills to do it. He’s quietly [thinking], ‘I want to be the No.1 player in the world,’ but he’s not running around telling anyone that.”
Clayton says observing Smylie absorb Mike Weir’s play for two days at the Australian Open a year ago was revealing. While the 2003 Masters champion has struggled in recent years, he was far from chopping it that week. “He watched him and thought, This guy won the Masters. There’s nothing he’s doing that I can’t do. In fact, quite the opposite. There were a lot of things Elvis was doing that Mike Weir couldn’t do.”
Smylie might just wind up being a Masters participant himself – possibly as soon as 2022. It feels like a long way off, but he will be among the favourites for the postponed Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in late 2021 at Royal Melbourne, where victory brings with it an invitation to the Masters and Open Championship. While winning that event would alter his plans for 2022, Smylie concedes he will likely turn pro “sooner rather than later”, but absolutely when he feels it’s right.
“I’ve been asked the question a lot: ‘When are you going to turn [pro]?’” he recently told the Inside The Ropes podcast. “For me personally, I’m always going to respond with the exact same thing, and that’s: I’ll know when the time’s right for me to turn.”
In his own time and on his own terms. Elvis Smylie is making all the right moves.