Regular guy Cameron Smith has earned a spot among pro golf’s elite in a way all his own
Photographs by Michael Schwartz
An interaction between Cameron Smith and fellow tour pro Joaquin Niemann during a windy practice round on the Monday of the Open Championship summed up the Australian perfectly. Smith had just arrived in St Andrews from North Berwick, where he’d tied for 10th at the Scottish Open, and opted to start the week of the 150th Open with light practice; he took three wedges, a putter, his coach, Grant Field, and his caddie, Sam Pinfold, to chip and putt on the front nine. Your correspondent tagged along. Smith knew he was in great form and, despite The Open being the last Major of the year, there was no need for burnout. Coming up to one of the Old Course’s many shared greens from the back nine were Sergio Garcia and Niemann. As Niemann teed up a drive on his next hole, Smith shouted through the wind, “Hey ‘Joaqo’… hit a low one!” Smith stood 200 metres from that tee with his iPhone held in the air as Niemann flighted one of his famously low drives only a couple metres above Smith’s mullet. The ball’s spin sounded like a spaceship. “Hey Cam, let me hit one!” Garcia shouted, wanting to join in. Garcia ripped a low bullet draw over Smith before both ran up to Smith to watch the footage. It was a snapshot into Smith’s approach to golf: work smarter, not necessarily harder, and have as much fun along the way. It seems to be working for the newly crowned Open champion.
THE MANNER IN WHICH SMITH secured a one-shot victory at The Open looked more like a veteran with nothing to lose rather than a rising superstar trying to break through for his first Major victory after several close calls. Smith began the back nine in the final round at the Old Course with five straight birdies, then an incredible putt around the Road Hole bunker to secure a third straight clutch par, before a 72nd-hole birdie. His back nine score of 30 was the lowest by an Open champion in history. Naturally, the Queenslander etched his name into the history books. He finished with a 20-under par total, beating Tiger Woods’ St Andrews scoring record (19-under in 2000) by one. He became the fifth Australian to win the Open Championship, but only the third to do it at the Home of Golf.
It came as no surprise to those close to him that Smith would remain ice cool despite the occasion. As recently as April, he had faced a similarly golden opportunity to get the Major monkey off his back. Smith had earned his way into the final group at Augusta National alongside eventual Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. Most golfers would have been stressed on the Sunday morning, but not Smith. His only worry was remembering to take home a six-pack of his favourite Australian beer, XXXX Gold, to his Florida home after the tournament. A close friend from Australia visiting Augusta had brought the beers over. Smith packed them inside a cooler of ice and left it at the front door of his rented house, ensuring he couldn’t leave without seeing them. Fading to a tie for third at Augusta while Scheffler cruised into the green jacket didn’t bother Smith and his unique approach; he’s proud that even on the biggest stage, golf doesn’t consume him. “If we’d driven back to Florida and realised halfway that we’d forgotten the beers, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself,” Smith says with a laugh.
WHEN DES SMITH INTRODUCED his son to golf as a toddler at Wantima Country Club in the humble northern suburbs of Brisbane, he couldn’t have predicted he would one day win the Players Championship and The Open at St Andrews in the same year, become the No.2-ranked player in the world and have six PGA Tour wins and two Australian PGA Championship titles to his name – all before the age of 29. But he does remember a moment from Smith’s junior golf days that signalled his boy was different. Brisbane is blessed with more than 280 days of sunshine a year, so golfers don’t rush to tee it up in rainy weather.
“I was the junior co-ordinator at our club, and we started running a nine-hole competition,” Des recalls. “One day I had to call it off because of rain and storms. But Cam begged me to play. He said, ‘Dad, you can’t call it off. I play better in the rain.’ He wasn’t even 10 years old, and he saw bad weather as a challenge he could overcome.”
Des, a scratch golfer, knew his son could make a career out of golf when Smith, at age 12, broke par and beat his dad for the first time in the same round (69 to Dad’s 71). Smith started working with Field about that time and began to soar through the ranks of Australian amateur golf, making the national team at age 16. His teammates were big, strong lads in their 20s, and some were playing college golf in the United States. Smith was small and slim, so he developed cheeky sledges to disarm older golfers.
Queensland’s state coach, Tony Meyer, remembers a funny exchange at the 2011 Asia-Pacific Amateur in Singapore involving Matt Smith, a star at Texas Tech University. “Matt was struggling with his swing, and I was watching him on the range,” Meyer says. “Cam was hitting balls next to us and calls out, ‘Hey, Matt! Watch this.’ Cam then hit a towering long-iron and said, ‘See that? Just copy that.’ Matt was seven years older than Cam; it was hilarious.”
“Being Australian, I’ve always liked taking the mickey out of people,” Smith says. “Among my mates, if you weren’t taking the mickey out of someone, they were doing it to you. But it has to be light-hearted.”
Smith turned pro in 2013, weighing 71 kilograms and averaging 261 metres with the driver. Field urged Smith to start on the Asian Tour, and a hot season was highlighted by a tie for fifth in his PGA Tour debut at the co-sanctioned CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Smith met his long-time caddie, Sam Pinfold, by coincidence at the 2014 New Zealand Open. Pinfold, a Kiwi who had previously worked for Ryo Ishikawa, Aron Price and Trevor Immelman, should have been in the United States caddieing for Brendan Steele, but visa problems in 2014 effectively ended that partnership.
“My first round with Cam at the New Zealand Open,” Pinfold says, “he hit all 18 greens and shot 66.” Pinfold stayed in touch while Smith tried to secure his PGA Tour card, and Smith pulled it off in 2015 in a dramatic way. He birdied four of his last six holes at US Open qualifying in Columbus, Ohio, to book his place at Chambers Bay. There Smith needed a top-five result to secure Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour. On the par-5 72nd hole, Smith hit a 3-wood to tap-in range for eagle and a T-4 finish. “At the time it was the coolest moment I’ve had in golf, and it didn’t sink in until I sat in the hotel room that night,” says Smith, who won $US407,000 and went back to Australia for a month to celebrate. He also hired Pinfold full-time.
Smith was homesick for his first two years on the PGA Tour. After the 2015 US Open, he didn’t register a top 10 the next season and had to win his PGA Tour card back through the Korn Ferry finals.
“I remember the first couple of months on the PGA Tour, we didn’t really go inside the locker room,” Pinfold says. “Cam was quite shy to use those facilities. We’d often just keep balls and gloves in the car and go straight to the range.”
Two years later, Pinfold suggested Smith partner with Pinfold’s Jacksonville housemate, Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. It was a caddie masterstroke as Smith won his first PGA Tour event. He teamed with fellow Australian Marc Leishman and won the event again in 2021. Pinfold has been on the bag for all of Smith’s PGA Tour wins, and his two Australian PGA Championship victories. The pair hang out regularly in Jacksonville Beach.
“To watch him grow, as a person, as a human, as a golfer, I feel privileged to be a part of that,” Pinfold says. Smith, who calls his bagman “Pinna”, relishes his attitude. “Pinna is as positive on the first tee shot on Thursday as he is grinding to make the cut on Friday,” Smith says.
AFTER HIS FIRST PGA TOUR victory in 2017, Smith wanted to give back to the Golf Queensland body that he’d grown up with. He didn’t want to have just another charity golf day, so in 2018 he created a junior scholarship for elite amateurs. The prize for the two winners each year is an all-expenses-paid trip to Smith’s Florida house for a week of golf and mentoring.
The inaugural recipients were teenagers Louis Dobbelaar and Jed Morgan. Smith suggested a 72-hole wager to the boys and offered them 10 shots. The rounds were at Pablo Creek, Atlantic Beach and two at TPC Sawgrass. Dobbelaar opened with 72 and Morgan 73, and Smith cruised to a 63. The boys used almost all their strokes on day one. “We were nervous to justify our scholarships and after the round, Cam looked us in the face and said, ‘I didn’t realise they’d sent over the Queensland practice squad,’” Dobbelaar recalls.
Says Smith: “We’ve turned into great friends, but on that first day I thought it’d be funny to give two of the best juniors in Australia a hard time.”
The week turned into a light-hearted boot camp of sorts. Dinners and activities were luxurious, but Smith tested them on the course and in the gym. “We didn’t go a day without sledging; it was awesome,” says Morgan. For the final round at Sawgrass, Smith, miles ahead in the bet, offered a consolation prize: shoot under par from the back tees and the boys could have anything in the golf shop. Dobbelaar shot 71 but avoided an expensive prize, opting for a modest Players Championship-logoed practice bag. “I still use it every day on the range as motivation to get to the PGA Tour,” he says.
Dobbelaar and Morgan are now touring pros. Dobbelaar is on the PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, and Morgan won the Australian PGA Championship by 11 shots in January to secure DP World Tour status. The scholarship is in its fourth year and remains close to Smith’s heart. “When I first came to the US, I really had no one else around the same age as me who I could relate to and have a beer with,” he says. “I wanted to be someone Aussie juniors could talk to. I love watching the juniors play golf because they play with such freedom. As PGA Tour players, sometimes you’re so worried about the outcome of shots you forget to be a kid. But it’s just golf, not the end of the world.”
Now in his eighth season, Smith has developed a network of friendships on tour, but who they are might surprise you; a lot of his closest mates are caddies, including Matt Kelly, who works for Leishman, and Rickie Fowler’s former caddie, Joe Skovron. During the week of the Players Championship that Smith won, he hosted an “appreciation party” at his house for more than 25 PGA Tour loopers. “I just wanted to buy them some beers and pizzas to say thanks for being there throughout the year,” Smith says. “Caddies are so down-to-earth, and they’re genuine people who want to see you do well. I can relate to them a bit more than maybe some of the players.”
One of Smith’s strongest player friendships is Leishman, who like Smith is a six-time PGA Tour winner. He remembers Smith’s shyness as a rookie but says Smith had grown confident by the time they were selected to represent Australia at the 2018 World Cup of Golf in Melbourne. “It was the first day of best-ball,” Leishman recalls. “I wasn’t contributing much, but Cam made an eagle and a birdie in his first few holes. He turned to me and said, ‘Leish, you’re welcome to turn up at any time.’ It was very funny and very Cam Smith.”
Leishman believes Smith could win multiple Majors, a feat no Australian male golfer has achieved since Greg Norman in the 1990s. “He loves the fight, and that’s necessary to win Majors and get to world No.1,” Leishman says. “What I also like is Cam rewards himself and parties after a win. With the amount of work we put in, we still don’t win golf tournaments very often, and it’s crucial to treat yourself.”
Smith is known within his circle for switching off from golf when at home in Palm Valley, Florida. He indulges in a love of fishing and fast cars. He has the “everyday car”, an Audi RS 6 sportswagon, and an orange Nissan GT-R, which has 1,300 horsepower and is modified to look like it’s from the “The Fast and The Furious”.
He also has an obsession with lawn work that has seen him befriend the greens staff at TPC Sawgrass. “Mowing the lawn gets me away from the world,” Smith says. “I don’t even listen to music, just the sound of the motor and grass getting cut.”
Smith’s stunning house backs onto Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, with a private dock. He walks out the back and onto his Front Runner 40-foot boat for fishing trips with childhood best friend, Jack Wilkosz. The biggest fish the pair have caught is a 77-kilogram Atlantic tarpon. “We get a little tarpon run for a few months in Jacksonville, and they’re the most insane fish I’ve ever seen,” Smith says. “Tarpon are massive, aggressive and they jump out the water. You grab them by the mouth to lift them up out of the water, and I could have fit my head in its mouth.”
Smith and Wilkosz – a colourful character who also sports a mullet – have been friends since their early teens in Brisbane. Smith asked Wilkosz to move to the United States several years ago to quell his homesickness and to help out on tour. Wilkosz will do things like take swing videos of Smith for Field, who is mainly based in Australia, or transport the TrackMan and other gear at tournaments. “Jack is a great addition to the team, and he makes life a little easier, but it’s nice having a really good friend travelling with me,” Smith says.
SMITH WON THE SONY OPEN IN Hawaii in January 2020 for his second PGA Tour title and then finished T-2 behind Dustin Johnson at the November Masters. Smith became the only player in Masters history to shoot four rounds in the 60s. His profile was also boosted by growing a mullet, which was inspired by rugby league players back home who were donning the hairstyle. When it drew laughs from PGA Tour players and caddies, Smith committed to it.
At the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui in January, Smith beat then-world No.1 Jon Rahm by one shot and set a PGA Tour record of 34-under par. Smith credits his girlfriend, Shanel Naoum, for inspiring him to another level. Naoum is a Jacksonville chiropractor, and the pair met through mutual friends. “Shanel makes me really happy,” Smith says. “She’s a hard worker. She just graduated from chiropractic school, so she spent eight years in university. Having someone next to you who means so much, and is working hard, is motivating. I want to go to the course and practise that little bit harder to almost try to outdo her.”
The work is paying off. His clubhead speed is up to 115 miles per hour, which has boosted his average driving distance to 298 yards (272 metres), up from 283.6 yards in his rookie PGA Tour season. Smith ranks among the top 10 for approach play and putting.
“Cam’s short game is incredible, but his mentality probably is his real strength,” says Adam Scott.
SMITH RANKS FIRST IN BIRDIE average (5.38) and scoring average (69.33) this season. In March, Smith made 10 birdies in the final round at the Players Championship and one-putted eight of his last nine holes to win by one. It was impressive even without considering a record $US3.6 million winner’s prize was on the line. Celebrations that night were trademark Smith; not fancy but meaningful. Smith already had his mother, Sharon, and sister, Mel, over from Australia that week. He had not seen them in more than two years because of our strict COVID-19 border restrictions. He invited another 30 people over for a party. Smith’s first move was to ask Wilkosz to light the backyard firepit. Wilkosz was using a blowtorch with little success – but lots of smoke – before Smith disappeared and returned with a leaf blower to fan the flames and ignite it. Family, friends and tour players including Scott drank beers and told stories into the wee hours.
Naturally, Smith entered the Masters as one of the favourites. On the Sunday, Smith birdied the first two holes to come within one of Scheffler, but a series of errors – including a triple-bogey at Augusta National’s par-3 12th – dashed his hopes, and he tied for third. Smith now owns four top 10s from six starts at Augusta National but believes his green jacket will come.
“I reflected a little, but I didn’t read into anything about the Masters afterwards,” Smith says. “It’s easy to get sucked into the spotlight or dwell on things, but I don’t.
“I’ve always been a process type of person,” he adds. “I’ll go to the course and tick all the boxes of what I need to work on. I’ll get in the gym and tick all those boxes, too. I’m not trying to impress or disappoint anyone because the anxiety of professional sports can be overwhelming. My goal waking up every day is to be a better golfer.”
Smith did’t hit the panic button despite recording a tie for 13th at the PGA Championship in May and missing the cut at the US Open in June. He knew the 2022 Majors season would have been a disappointment without a victory and it all came down to the last big dance of the year.
Majors don’t get any bigger than the Open Championship at St Andrews, let alone when it’s the 150th edition. Smith ended a 29-year drought for Australians at The Open, becoming our country’s first winner of the claret jug since Norman’s 1993 triumph. “All the names on there, every player that’s been at the top of their game has won this championship,” Smith said afterwards. “It’s pretty cool to be on there. It really hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t think it will for a few weeks. It’s just unreal.”
Smith is now within striking distance of overtaking Scheffler as world No.1 if he can maintain his elite level of play. It may only take a victory and another strong finish in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs if Scheffler has a mediocre finals campaign. If Smith is able to pull it off, he would become Australia’s fourth male world No.1 after Norman, Scott and Jason Day. “That’s crazy to think about,” Smith says. “My first few years on tour, the thought of being No.1 seemed far-fetched, and I almost didn’t want it because it seemed too hard. But now my mentality has changed. I’m going to try my best, and even if I don’t make it, at least I’ll know I had a good crack at it.”