PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida — Contrary to chatter in 19th holes and bars along A1A, all vestiges of Cameron Smith’s victory in the 2022 Players Championship have not been washed clean at the TPC Sawgrass or the Players Stadium Course.
It’s true that the Jacksonville-area resident and Australian native lost his playing and practicing privileges at the home of The Players when he defected to the LIV Golf League last year after becoming the first man since Jack Nicklaus in 1978 to win The Players and the British Open in the same year.
But the Tour has acknowledged, with traditional gestures, Smith’s one-shot victory over Anirban Lahiri in the first Monday finish since 2005.
The flag of the previous champion’s home country flies between The Perch and the clubhouse, and Australia’s has been fluttering in the breeze every day since Smith’s 66 in the final round.
Unless another Aussie such as 2004 Players champion Adam Scott or 2016 winner Jason Day comes up big again this week at the Stadium Course, the flag will change to the new champion’s country sometime during the evening of March 12, the day of the final round.
There are also two ways past Players champions are honored within the clubhouse: a recap of their victory, with a caricature of the player, is made into a framed poster and hung in one hallway; and a display of clubs that each winner used during their triumphal week in another hallway.
Smith’s smiling visage, his long hair spilling from under his flat-brimmed hat, is in one hallway, and a pitching wedge he used last year is in the other.
He will always be a Players champion. No one can take that away, and the Tour is not.
But he’s still an absentee champion, only the fourth time in the 49-year history of The Players that a winner has not defended his title and the first since Tiger Woods missed the 2014 tournament with a back injury.
The other champions who didn’t defend were Jerry Pate in 1983 (shoulder injury) and Steve Elkington in 1998 (sinus infection), which means Smith is the first Players champion to miss the tournament the following year for non-injury reasons.
“He’s one of our champions and history speaks for itself,” said Players executive director Jared Rice. “The play of all of our past champions speaks for itself. But 2023 is about the players who will be here. We have our eyes forward on the product, which is the best field in golf again.”
Final round highs and lows
Smith’s victory in 2002 was remarkable for its highs and lows. He birdied his first four holes and five of his first six, weathered three bogeys in a row in the middle of his round, birdied another four in a row and five of eight, and escaped with a bogey at the last when he hit his second shot from the right trees into the water on the left of the 18th fairway.
Smith dropped, pitched onto the green and made a putt for bogey, then had to wait for Lahiri to finish before he knew he had won the Gold Man Trophy. Smith finished at 13-under-par 275.
And it was a week in which Smith worked magic with his wedges and putter. He was dead last in driving accuracy, hitting only 24 fairways, and tied for 52nd in greens in regulation.
But Smith was first in strokes gained putting and fourth in the total feet of putts made, more than making up for any issues with finding short grass.
The Players galleries took Smith to their embrace as the day wore on. The fact that he’s a world-class golfer, loves to fish (he participated in the Kingfish Tournament last July) and has a personality that exudes a beach vibe has made him one of the most popular players among First Coast golf fans.
“I’ve never been one to expect much of myself,” he said after the 2022 Players. “My expectations are that I wake up, go to the gym, practice as hard as I can for a couple of hours and then go have a good time.”
More evidence that Smith is an all-world good dude was in the aftermath of his victory at the Stadium Course. His caddie passed the word among other caddies: the party was at Smith’s home along the Intracoastal Waterway.
It was pure Cam: pizza and beer with his friends, a fitting end to a marvelous week.
Smith’s game in good form
The Times-Union has made numerous attempts to contact Smith for recollections of his Players victory.
Multiple emails and social media messages were left with the LIV Golf League communications department. Nearly two weeks later, a one-line email from LIV Golf directed inquiries to Smith’s agent, Bud Martin, “since the interview is related to the Players Championship.”
After an email was sent to Martin requesting an interview, he send a three-word reply: “Pass for now.”
Two PGA Tour players who have remained friends with Smith were also sought out and asked if they could intercede, to no avail. One of them said the chance of an interview with Smith was “one in 100.”
A reporter for Golfweek attempted to interview Smith after a practice round at Mayokoba, Mexico, last week but didn’t get a response.
While Smith’s victory is still honored in three places at the TPC Sawgrass, LIV Golf seems to make a point of avoiding the mention of any PGA Tour titles in its players’ online biographies, citing only major championships, college and amateur accomplishments and other international victories.
Smith’s bio, for example, has 13 bullet-point career highlights, none of which mentions the 2022 Players.
Smith may not be playing golf at the TPC Sawgrass but he’s been spotted numerous times around the First Coast since he went to LIV Golf. He’s been seen playing at Glen Kernan and The Yards and his game appears in good form.
Smith tied for fifth in the first LIV event of the season at Mayakoba and won the Australian PGA for the third time in his career in November. He will play next in two weeks in the LIV event in Tucson.
He was ranked second in the world behind Scottie Scheffler after winning the British Open and despite receiving no rankings points for his LIV Golf starts, he’s now fifth, the highest-ranked LIV player.
After winning the British Open and announcing his move to LIV, Smith played five times, winning in Chicago and Doral and tying for fourth in Boston. He finished 10th on the League’s points list in 2023.
Again, no repeat champion
Smith’s absence also means there will not be a repeat champion, which has never happened in Players history – speaking to the depth of the field and difficulty of the course.
“That just goes to show you how hard it is come back and play this golf course,” Day said during Players week in 2017. “Because it does test every aspect of your game, not only the physical part, but the mental part as well.”
Scott said that same week that the nature of the course, which favors no style of player, doesn’t mean a defending champion will find it any easier.
“We have so many different styles of game, so I think the course is open to so many different guys to have a chance to win,” he said. “There’s more guys in the mix … leaves it open for anyone.”
For further context in how hard a task it would have been for Smith, or any defending Players champion to repeat, the Masters has had two repeat winners (Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Woods in 2001-02), the U.S. Open two (Curtis Strange in 1988-89 and Brooks Koepka in 2017-18), the PGA Championship three (Woods in 1999-2000 and 2006-07 and Koepka in 2017-18) and the British Open three (Tom Watson in 1982-83, Woods in 2005-06 and Padraig Harrington in 2007-08).
No defending Players champion has finished higher than a tie for fifth (Tom Kite in 1990) or been closer than four shots to the winner (Mark McCumber in 1989).