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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When play began in the first round of the Players Championship Thursday morning, defending champion Cameron Smith was on the tee inside the sprawling TPC Sawgrass property.

Just not on the famed Stadium Course.

Smith played with friends and posed for pictures with fans at The Yards, a nine-hole course that sits one mile down the driveway from the course where the world’s best players are competing.

“He looked great. You can tell in his eyes he’s a quality young man,” said one golfer who spoke with Smith during his visit Thursday morning. “Extremely cordial and personable.” Staff at The Yards confirmed that Smith played on Thursday morning, but declined further comment.

The 29-year-old Australian won the 2022 Players Championship and went on to victory in the 150th Open at St. Andrews. One month after his Open win, Smith joined LIV Golf, the Saudi-financed rival league. That move earned Smith an immediate suspension from the PGA Tour. He last competed at the Tour Championship in August.

“It’s awkward,” commissioner Jay Monahan admitted earlier this week when asked about Smith’s absence. “But you know, ultimately that’s a decision he made.”

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Smith lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, his home located just a few miles from TPC Sawgrass and PGA Tour headquarters. Earlier this week he was quoted as saying he might show up to the event as a spectator, but would at least be watching at home.

But while stars like Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy were playing in the $25 million tournament, Smith was enjoying a round with friends nearby.

Reports have suggested that Smith has had difficulty joining a golf club in town since his move to LIV. He lost privileges at TPC Sawgrass and reportedly couldn’t get in to Pablo Creek, a high-end club where Monahan and former Tour commissioner Tim Finchem are members. The Yards is a public facility with members that opened in 2020. It features nine holes with a separate six-hole par-3 course and practice range.