Bonfire and beers: How Cameron Smith celebrated winning THE PLAYERS Championship
9 Min Read
Written by Ben Everill @BEverillGolfbet
An inside look at Cameron Smith’s final round at THE PLAYERS
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was late Monday evening when THE PLAYERS Championship winner Cameron Smith arrived back at his beautiful waterfront home about 15 minutes down the road from TPC Sawgrass with the iconic gold man trophy in his grasp.
About 30 guests cheered wildly as he walked in the door and caddie Sam Pinfold handed him a bottle of champagne. Out on the back deck, Smith popped it and sprayed it around in the manner of a winning Formula 1 driver, soaking his caddie; mum, Sharon; sister, Mel; and best mate, Jack Wilkocz.
Smith, who is known as Smithy, Horse and Heff amongst those closest to him, motioned to a huge fire pit in the backyard. It was time, he said, half-joking, for Wilkocz to earn his keep and ignite that sucker.
You may have seen Wilkocz on your TV screen Monday. He has until now operated mostly under the radar, despite being a crucial part of Smith’s success. The long-time best mate from back home, Wilkocz moved to the States to help curb the homesickness that crippled Smith’s early years on TOUR. They’re both as Aussie as they come, and now they are on this American journey together.
There is no official title for big Jack, but he is the jack of all trades for Smith. He takes swing videos for the golfer’s Australia-based coach. He ties down loose palm trees in the backyard during a windstorm. He is always ready for a beer, a fishing trip, or to kick a footy around. The one thing he isn’t: a yes man.
“Jack doesn’t hold back with Smithy,” said former TOUR pro Aron Price. “If something needs to be said, he says it. They are the best of mates and they give each other crap constantly but it is true mateship when your friend is prepared to tell you about the tough things in life.”
Not the types to show emotion, they were in tears Monday. Part of it was the week they’d already been having. Smith’s mum and sister were in town for the first time in over two years. So, too, was Jack’s family. The reunion was the focus. The COVID-19 pandemic isolated travel to and from Australia, and Smith and Wilkocz, unable to go home, leaned on each other more than ever. In a way, Smith’s victory at Sawgrass felt like a reward for them getting through it.
They are, to use an Aussie term, a pair of fun-loving bogans. The word can be construed a few ways, but in this case it’s akin to lovable rascals. They are unconventional, a little uncouth at times, salt-of-the-earth, and very funny. When the bonfire wouldn’t start at Smith’s victory party, the wood having been soaked in the storms that delayed the tournament, it gave way to a comical scene.
Instead of paper, kindling and matches, Wilkocz found a blowtorch, creating mountains of smoke but minimal fire. His tenacity was close to paying off when Smith disappeared and came back with a leaf blower. He started it up and fanned the embers into flames, and just like that they had their backyard bonfire. The crew all grabbed chairs and copped a squat around the flames.
It was here that everyone, including Smith, was fair game. In the Australian tradition of making fun of each other, no one was spared. Pinfold, as a resident Kiwi, got plenty thrown his way. But he knows how to send it back. The drinks flowed and the laughs got louder as the stories got wilder.
Also in attendance for the laid-back party was Matthew Kelly, Marc Leishman’s caddie. (Leishman, with whom Smith won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last year, had missed the cut and left town.) Adam Scott, whom Smith looked up to as a kid, was there, too, having set up a Florida base for the next month or so. Price was there. Such is the closeness of the group that Smith is “Uncle Cam” to their kids.
While around the fire, Smith took multiple FaceTime calls from home, including from Dad Des and his grandparents. The calls were no holds barred, Smith and his elders trading good-natured insults.
He joked with his 83-year-old granddad, a retired farmer, that he might buy him a racehorse, which led to possible names for the nag, like "Silver King." That’s what Smith and crew call the mythical tarpon they’re often out chasing, but it was also a nod to his granddad’s silver hair. Some other crude options followed, along with further salty language. In Aussie terms, it was pure love.
Around the fire there was talk of the next fishing expedition, finding a new coffee bean to try, the occasional joke about Smith’s new bank balance. Not that anyone thinks Smith is about the money. He and his inner circle are blue-collar to the core. Despite having added another $3.6 million to his kick, Smith is still the kid from the suburbs of Brisbane in Australia who refuses to let success go to his head.
And if he somehow lapsed, his crew would call him on it.
“Smithy is just a great young bloke from Queensland who doesn’t see status in people,” Price said. “He has a great BS detector and either you’re a genuine person and he might like you, or you’re not and there’s no time worth wasting for those types. He’s still young, and success can easily change people, but that’s not the case with him. And then those around him are ready if it does.”
Australian fans talk about “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” which in short means they want humble champions, not brash ones. They value mental toughness and a will to win no matter the circumstances, even more than winning itself. This way of thinking has been challenged in the millennial generation, with Aussies having love/hate relationships with athletes like tennis star Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrios, full of bravado, has more of an American sensibility, as sports stars go. As Smith tore apart TPC Sawgrass with 10 birdies, the mainly American crowds cheering him on, they perhaps hoped for something back from the adopted local. While he’d wave in acknowledgement for each birdie, Smith gave no outward jubilation. No chest bumps with Pinfold. There was just more work to be done.
Smith might be born a millennial, but he has the look, and attitude, of a 1970s Australian man. It’s why the music playing at the party was classic rock from the 70’s and 80s – and not some techno or club vibe. His flowing mullet and mustache would look right at home in that era. One easily imagines Smith in a singlet top, ‘stubbies’ (short shorts), and thongs (flip flops), with a beat-up Datsun and a surfboard, or more likely in Smith’s case, a fishing rod, poking out the open back window.
He doesn’t crave approval, and he doesn’t do the good things he does in life for recognition. In fact, he’s probably annoyed when they surface in the press. Like how a few weeks ago he did a video hook up to a bunch of young school kids and aspiring golfers in Australia. The kids wore mullet wigs and probed him in a “press conference” where he gave thoughtful, motivating responses. He admitted doubting himself when he was younger, and said he was proud of himself for not giving up.
Smith had 30 of the more regular caddies from the PGA TOUR at his house the Monday before the PLAYERS, a sort of beer and pizza night for the boys, a “RAT party,” as he affectionately called it, to show his appreciation the hard workers on TOUR. He also runs a scholarship for elite juniors in Queensland where two players a year get to fly to Ponte Vedra Beach for a week or two of practice, training and living like a TOUR pro. He won’t go out of his way to tell you about these things.
Nor does Smith love the nuances or pureness of golf. He doesn’t practice for hours, doesn’t study ball flight or Trackman numbers. What he loves is competing, and winning, especially when others don’t expect him to. It is something Queenslanders like Smith pride themselves on.
“I had a bit of a break towards the end of last year,” he said, “probably had two months off, and more than anything else I just wanted to get out and compete again. I was sick of whacking balls at the back of the range... I wanted to compete against the best guys in the world and try and beat them.
“Being a Queenslander,” he continued, “you learn just never give up. I grew up watching rugby league and watching the Queenslanders come from behind, and even when it got gritty, they'd somehow manage to win. I think that's kind of instilled in all of us.”
When looking to motivate Smith in practice, Pinfold, Wilkosz, Price and company know the trigger. It’s competition. During a practice round for THE PLAYERS, Pinfold bet Smith $100 he wouldn’t make the 30-foot putt he faced to save a par on the 18th green. This is common practice for the pair, who keep a running tally of their bets. Smith often comes out on top, just as he did in nailing that putt.
Of course, he made almost every putt he looked at during the tournament as well, leading the field in Strokes Gained: Putting with an incredible +11.521, the most at THE PLAYERS since stats began in 2003.
“It’s incredible when he comes out and plays with mates,” Price said. “He’s just an animal of a competitor. He might give someone two, three, four shots a side or whatever it is, but if he finds himself down with holes running out, he just flips a switch and refuses to lose.
“He can do the same on TOUR. He thinks he can take on anyone head-to-head and he’s right.”
Now sixth in the world and climbing, Smith’s next start suits him arguably more than where he’s just won. The Masters rewards those with precise iron play and deadeye putting. Smith has three top-10 finishes at Augusta National and is already being mentioned as a favorite to win the green jacket.
If he does, you get the sense he will still be the same old Cam. Those closest to him wouldn’t have it any other way.