Smith: Sony Open victory means 'that little bit more'Offered to donate $500 for every birdie and $1000 for every eagle to Australian bushfire relief
January 13, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Cameron Smith wins in a playoff at the Sony Open
HONOLULU – Cameron Smith sat four over through his first two holes at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He could have mentally checked out right then and there. But the plucky Australian was playing for something more than himself this week at Waialae Country Club.
With his home country in the middle of an incredible bushfire crisis that has claimed lives, thousands of homes and copious amounts of unique wildlife, Smith had pledged to do his part to help the cause. The 26-year-old offered to donate $500 for every birdie and $1,000 for every eagle he made in the tournament to relief efforts in conjunction with his fellow countrymen in the field.
His uncle Warren had already lost his house and most of his farm and had been shipped from Tumbarumba – a country town not far from the nation’s capital of Canberra – to Smith’s home in Brisbane. He and countless other Australians face a long road back and the fires continue to rage. Exhausted and facing multiple fires across the country, firefighters in Australia continue the battle. As do the people, binding together with the nation’s much loved fighting spirit.
This country is massive in size – similar to the U.S. mainland – but small in number with some 25 million people. They pride themselves on never giving up, born in what is often referred to as the ANZAC spirit. The origins are from the first world war when Australian and New Zealand soldiers battled against tremendous odds at Gallipoli. As a group they showed endurance against all odds, incredible courage in adversity and an undeniable ability to keep humor and mateship at the forefront. You are never alone, but part of a bigger collective. One that will fight forever if need be.
Smith is a quintessential Aussie in this regard. He always lifts when there is a sense things are for more than himself. Those two holes to start were clearly not ideal, but he was well aware he was playing golf – in Hawaii – while his countrymen back home faced far bigger struggles. They were facing walls of flames while all he was contending with was some wind and a little rain. He had a job to do. Make birdies. And come hell or high water he was going to do it.
He made six that day to eventually shoot an even par 70. He would make 15 more over the next three rounds, none more important or clutch then the 8-foot putt on the 72nd hole to set up a playoff with Brendan Steele who had taken a three-shot lead to Sunday. One sudden death playoff hole later Smith was the champion – his second PGA TOUR win but first as an individual. No one on record has started as poorly and gone on to win.
“Every birdie putt I had, just meant that little bit more. Rather than kind of wanting to make it, I almost felt like I had to make it,” Smith said after his victory. “I've always been quite good at not giving up. I've never felt the need to kind of mentally check out in any way. It was a big fight all week, basically.”
His previous TOUR win was at the 2017 Zurich Classic of New Orleans with teammate Jonas Blixt. They won that in a playoff, also. To those who know Smith it was no surprise he won there. Again, he was playing for something more than himself. He had a teammate to fight with.
Last month Smith came from three down through five holes in his singles match against Justin Thomas at the Presidents Cup to win on the 17th hole. Thomas had been the lynchpin for the U.S. and was undefeated prior. Smith was looking like another victim until it became apparent he absolutely had to turn things around if his International Team had any hope of winning the Cup in his home country.
Under that pressure, as a Presidents Cup rookie, he thrived. Again, winning for someone else as well as himself. When he drained the clutch putt that day, the International Team still had hope although would ultimately lose 16-14. He thought back to his Singles battle with his similar length putt on 18 Sunday.
“Just having to make the putts, feeling like something else is on the line, I think I drew a little bit from the Presidents Cup,” Smith said. “I felt as though I played some of my best golf that week, and with such little time between these events I think that kind of rolled over definitely into this week.”
His International teammate Marc Leishman, also a huge part of the fire relief efforts at the tournament, was not in the least bit surprised in the fightback. He partnered with Smith in the 2018 ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf and watched Smith take charge at crucial times as they tried to storm home to a win. They were T2 that day, but this time Smith went one better.
“Smithy is a fighter. He’s gritty. He won’t ever give up and everyone saw that firsthand this week,” Leishman said. “If you are looking for someone to be with you in the trenches, he’s your man. He’s grown up like that. It’s ingrained in him and his culture.”
So this win was emotional for so many reasons. It proved he could do it on the big stage as an individual and it was to hopefully bring his family, and the wider Australian public, something small to smile about during these tough times.
“I realize Australia is doing it tough right now and the focus in probably not on my golf for good reason. But hopefully it gave a few people reason to smile for a moment of two,” Smith said.
“Uncle Warren drove back to his place the other day and what he found was quite devastating. I kind of saw the photos and the only thing he had left was a little shed that him and his son built a few months back.”
“We're a tight knit family and it kind of hit everyone pretty hard. It's good to do something good, and hopefully puts a smile on their face.”
The win brings with it plenty of perks also. Smith moves to fifth in the FedExCup, locks up a TOUR card for two more seasons and gains a berth in the Masters and PGA Championship that he was not yet exempt for. He moves to 31st in the Official World Golf Rankings, giving him a chance to push for Olympic qualification later this year. Of course that is where his mind went after the win – another chance to represent his country.
“I definitely want to be there in Japan and want to wear the green and gold as much as I can,” he said.
Smith grew up in the shadow of a bigger star with the same name. In Australia, Cameron Smith usually means the former Australian rugby league captain. That Cameron Smith is the only player to have played more than 400 games in the National Rugby League (NRL) and is the competition's all-time leading point-scorer. He is from the same state as Smith and is the golfer's sporting idol. But if the golfing Cameron Smith continues to show this type of fight and spirit, the rugby league legend will share the same spotlight more and more into the future.
Cameron Smith gets up-and-down to force playoff at the Sony Open
Cameron Smith's news conference after winning the Sony Open