[PHOTO: Jason Butler]

The Hong Kong Open may be a 64-year-old golf tournament, but the 2023 edition of the popular Asian Tour event was one of the most dramatic in its history.

New Zealand’s Ben Campbell birdied the last two holes to defeat Cameron Smith by a shot, but in the meantime, both players were dragged into a bizarre rules controversy with the third player in their group that took longer than 15 minutes to unfold.

Smith, ranked 20th in the world, was trailing Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai by one shot standing on the 16th tee at Hong Kong Golf Club when Khongwatmai blocked his tee shot right into thick trees and took several minutes to assess his swing path for the second shot.

Khongwatmai, ranked 261st, wasn’t able to advance his second shot from the bush and, after calling a rules official, spent 15 minutes discussing his options while Smith and Campbell frustratingly looked on.

Kiwi Ben Campbell edges Cam Smith in last-gasp Hong Kong Open win

“He’s moving stuff all around it,” Campbell said. “How is this green? This is obviously living.”

Campbell called for another rules official and could be heard on the broadcast saying, “He’s broken these branches here… Wow.”

During the incident, Khongwatmai looked at Campbell and Smith and said, “[Are] you guys happy? If you’re not happy I’m not going to do it.”

The frustration for Campbell and Smith stems from Rule 8 in the Rules of Golf, “Course Played as it is Found.” Under it, Rule 8.1, which specifically mentions actions that are not allowed, reads, “A player must not take any of these actions if they improve the conditions affecting the stroke: (1) Move, bend or break any: Growing or attached natural object, Immovable obstruction, integral object or boundary object or tee-marker for the teeing area when playing a ball from that teeing area.”

Cameras showed Smith giving up on the situation and walking back to his own shot. TV commentators said, “I’ve never seen this before. You get the impression his playing partners are not happy.”

Khongwatmai deliberated further over his third shot before heaving it out of the bushes and into the rough. He was not penalised and made a double-bogey 6 while Smith made par to create a two-shot swing and take the lead heading into the 17th hole.

More drama followed when Campbell and Khongwatmai birdied the 17th to ensure a three-way tie for the lead going into the 72nd hole. On 18, Smith pushed his drive into the trees and, after a chip-out, almost holed his third shot from 100 metres. He tapped in for par and an 18-under total, while Campbell played his approach to 15 feet and made the birdie putt for the win (19-under). Khongwatmai three-putted for bogey to drop into a share of third at 17-under.

“Today my putting was not so good like the past three days, but I played well since the beginning until the 16th hole,” Khongwatmai said. “I was in a very difficult situation at that moment that I couldn’t do anything. Also, there were broken trees which was an obstacle so I couldn’t step backwards to drop the ball. I had to keep trying to hit it. However, I’m satisfied with my overall performance that I can make under par for today.”

Smith was disappointed not to secure his first victory in Asia.

“Pretty poor over the weekend I guess but I hung in there, so lots of positives,” he said. “Definitely wasn’t the nicest golf to be played over last couple of days, still lots to work on.”

Smith will have a week to tighten up his game before his title defence at the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Queensland in Brisbane before the Australian Open in Sydney a week later.