Hugs and handshakes and smiles. And a sigh of relief.
Cameron Smith, the reigning Open champion and the highest-ranked player in the Masters field representing the LIV Golf League, found himself on shaky ground, of sorts, when he stepped on the sprawling practice facility on Monday at Augusta National Golf Club.
The last time he had seen many of his fellow competitors in a tournament setting was nine months before in Scotland at the Old Course at St Andrews, when he rallied past Rory McIlroy to win the Open Championship, his first Major title.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 4, 2023
He left for the start-up Saudi-backed tour soon after, ranked No.2 in the world and No.1 in the heart of fellow Aussie Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s CEO.
Now the sixth-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking, Smith figures to be one of a handful of LIV golfers competing this week with a good chance to contend for a green jacket when the 87th Masters begins on Thursday.
At least the hard part is out of the way. That’s when he had to mingle with his former PGA Tour peers. Might be a first … butterflies on a Monday.
“It was good to see some familiar faces. Lots of laughs and lots of handshakes, and it was really nice,” Smith said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “I really wasn’t sure what I was going to expect walking onto the range, but it was good to see some familiar faces and a lot of smiles.
“I was just kind of letting it all kind of happen naturally,” he continued. “I didn’t want to expect too much but at the same time, I kind of wanted that, not only for myself but just for the game of golf. I think there’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment that doesn’t need to be going on, especially in the media. I think it’s definitely wound up a little bit too much.
“I just think there’s too much rubbish going on, basically. I don’t think there’s any kind of hatred going on between the players. We are all happy where we are, and I’m just as happy for the guys winning out on the PGA Tour as I am for the LIV golfers.”
That being said, Smith, 29, is in tune with the idea that at least a few of the 18 LIV golfers in the 88-man field need to make a good showing. Norman floated the idea that should a LIV player win, the other 17 members of the tour will be on hand to help celebrate. Smith quashed that notion.
“There definitely hasn’t been a conversation with me. If there was one, I definitely got left out of that one,” he said, drawing laughs. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen, mate. I guess we’ll see how the week unfolds. For sure I’d love to see one of us guys get up to the top of the leaderboard and really give it a nice shot.”
Why is that?
“I think it’s just important for LIV guys to be up there because I think we need to be up there,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of chatter about these guys don’t play real golf; these guys don’t play real golf courses. For sure, I’ll be the first one to say, the fields aren’t as strong. I’m the first one to say that. But we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf.”
Perhaps Smith was left out of that conversation because he is expected to carry the banner among his fellow 54-hole specialists. If so, he’ll have to raise his recent level of play, one with which he expressed “frustration.”
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 3, 2023
He began the year by missing the cut at the Saudi International, and then, after finishing sixth at Mayakoba in the LIV season opener, Smith has been outside the top 25 in his last two LIV starts in its 48-man fields. He simply hasn’t been as sharp as a year ago when he won the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Players Championship before his impeccable performance at St Andrews.
He admitted that his game, “was probably a little bit better than what it feels like at the moment, to be honest.”
Fortunately, the magic of Augusta National is in his favour. He has finished in the top-five three times in six appearances, including T-2 in 2020. He can draw on a place where he has a lot of good memories.
“A lot of times, I’ve come in not feeling so good with my game and it’s kind of spring-boarded me into kind of a nice rest of the season. So I’m kind of hoping that that happens again this year.
“You know, things are feeling good. They just haven’t quite meshed. … Like I said before, I feel like this is a place where it kind of comes pretty naturally for me. I’m confident that I can win.”
FULL MASTERS COVERAGE: