Australian Cameron Smith has recorded top-fives at the last two Masters. He tells Brian Wacker about his close call in 2020 and why he believes he can win at Augusta
Cameron Smith was born to working-class parents in blue-collar Brisbane, Australia, but it was last November inside the gates at famed Augusta National that the 27-year-old came of age.
Smith, playing in just his third career Masters, became the first player in the tournament’s storied history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s, an accomplishment one might reasonably believe would be enough to land an appointment in Butler Cabin for the slipping on of a green jacket. If not for Dustin Johnson and an historic performance of his own, one would have been correct.
One day, perhaps. Instead, Smith, whose 11-under 277 total would have won all but seven of the 84 playings of the tournament, missed out on becoming just the second Aussie to win the green jacket behind Adam Scott, who broke the curse in 2013, and settled for a distant tie for second, along with Sungjae Im, five strokes back of Johnson.
Still, there was little to be disappointed about. For Smith, who learned the game at a young age from his father, Des, a scratch golfer himself who worked in the printing business and was home from work in time for when the oldest of two children [Smith also has a younger sister] finished school for the day, it was his best career finish in a major and third top-5 in one overall.
Not bad for a player who is hardly among the longest hitters in the bomb-and-gouge era – Smith averaged a middle-of-the-pack 299.8 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour last season – nor one of the game’s most accurate with his irons – only once has he ranked in the top 100 in strokes gained: approach.
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A nifty short game, being handy with the flat stick and having a hefty dose of guile does Smith just fine. Already, he’s won twice on both the PGA and European Tours, has netted more than $13 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour and played in the Presidents Cup.
Life off the course isn’t so bad, either. Smith, who settled in Ponte Vedra, Florida, with his American girlfriend Jordan Ontiveros [a golfer herself who had a brief stint on the Symetra Tour], likes it laid-back, spending his downtime fishing, enjoying a coffee or pint and watching Rugby League. There’s also a tight-knit cadre of countrymen in the area that makes him feel at home.
But what about this year’s Masters? Smith recently sat down for an interview with Golf Monthly to look ahead by first looking back.
Masters Sunday, November 2020. What do you remember about that day?
It was just another tournament being in contention, I guess. You learn something about yourself every time you’re in that position. I’d always been a gritty player and it shows on a day like that think, and I loved it. I just absolutely loved being in that spot and having a chance to win the Masters.
Dumb question but what specifically did you like about it, outside the obvious?
I just really love being in a position where you have to do something rather than sort of lollygagging about. I like knowing what you have to do to achieve something if that makes sense. Especially because early on in the week, even at Augusta National, I tend to get a bit blasé about things and don’t really focus probably as much as I need to on the things that I need to do.
Golf tournaments are long weeks and majors can feel even longer and I’m a better player when I can know exactly what I need to do to win and then once I’m in that position, I just love that.
What did you learn about yourself that week?
Not anything that I didn’t already know. I really just built upon that, and that’s just knowing that I can hit the shots I need to when I’m in a position to try to win. But there was one hole I played terribly all week – the par-4 fifth. It’s one of the hardest holes on the course and I played it in one over for the week, but I’ve made some bogeys the handful of times I’ve played the tournament.
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Of course my only bogey last year came on Sunday. I like to see a fade off the tee and sometimes with those bunkers on the left – it takes about 315 yards to carry them – I’ll aim at them rather than aim down the left side of the fairway. And because the hole goes that way, you think you have to aim at the sand but you don’t.
I ended up driving it into the right side of the fairway on Sunday last year and was in a decent spot but then just hit this horrific approach that went long and left, which was just dead with a back left pin. I hit a pretty good high pitch to about 15-20 feet past the flag but left the putt short. So that’s one hole I’d like to have over again. But it’s just always been an awkward one for me.
Is the Masters the major that you’re most comfortable at?
Yeah I love it, it’s just awesome. I love the place, I really do. Growing up in Australia, I always learned the game around the greens and different types of shots to hit into them and you had to be very creative. Around Augusta, I feel like I can be super creative.
I also find it’s the type of place where you never hit the same shot twice, which I also love, whereas on the PGA Tour about 95 per cent of the courses we play every week you’re hitting the same shot time and again, just with a different club. But at Augusta, it’s totally different.
What was your most memorable or best shot from the week?
It’d have to be my second shot on the seventh hole on Sunday. I’d flared my tee shot out to the right and into the rough. At Augusta, there’s plenty of room to miss off the tee, but where my ball ended up I had just this tiny little gap to be able to get it up and through the trees and I knew I had to do something to try to keep up with DJ [Dustin Johnson].
Like I said earlier, I love being in that position, where you know you have to do something, and I had to make birdie. I also had to smoke it. It was 120 meters to the front of the green and I usually carry my gap wedge 114 meters. And I had to hit it way up in the air. I knew I was better if I was in the front bunker than being over the back.
It landed on top and just dribbled out. Someone told me later my eyes were like saucers watching the shot after I hit it. But I hit it perfect and knew I hit it perfect.
How would you rate career at this point?
Probably a C-plus.
That’s rather low for a guy who has two wins on the PGA Tour, two on the European Tour, played in the Presidents Cup and has three top-5s in majors, including a runner up at the Masters.
The thing is I feel like I know I’m a little lazy and I know I don’t practice enough. I know I should be doing all these things to make myself a better player, but honestly I just feel more comfortable in what I’m doing, so I don’t really change anything.
I did go through stage a few years ago, though, when I really knuckled down on my health and fitness. I got really disciplined with my diet and the beers and other things. I got really strong and fit in the gym and lost a lot of weight. But it wasn’t working for me.
I felt great, but I wasn’t playing good. So I went back to what I was doing. I still spent time in the gym, and I still do, but I eat the stuff that makes me happy and have a few beers with the lads and enjoy life.
You described yourself as a gritty player. Where does that come from?
Just growing up where I did, really. Aussies are really good at knocking you down a peg. When I was a kid, I’d go away and win some junior tournament and I’d come back and it’s like, OK, yeah that’s nice. I feel like over here in the States, they celebrate stuff like that a lot more. Back home, it’s like well you have more to achieve, so why should we celebrate this?
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And growing up in Queensland, the Rugby League team there is always the underdog but they so often find a way to gut it out and win, so growing up watching that and being a big fan of Rugby League I guess that’s always sort of inspired me to be a bit the same. Plus, I’m not the biggest guy out here or the longest so I feel like I’ve got to scrap a bit, which is fine by me.
What are your goals for this year?
I’d love to be in the mix again at Augusta. I really do feel like I can win there. I just feel very comfortable around the place, which not a lot of guys do I think. I just need to be in a spot where my game is in order, because it’s a place that can tear you apart pretty quickly if your game is not on right level.
The rest? Just play good golf and be happy. Pretty simple really, which is how I like it.