Cameron Smith has broken through for his first major professional victory on home soil, claiming the Australian PGA Championship in a thrilling sudden death play-off over New South Welshman Jordan Zunic.
Smith started the final round three shots adrift of Zunic but was able to make up the deficit and, despite a bogey on the 72nd hole, he prevailed on the second play-off hole at RACV Royal PInes to win the Joe Kirkwood Cup. You could have heard the cheers from Wantima all the way down the M1.
“At Wantima, jeez, I don't know, I don't know. I don't think I want to know,” Smith joked when asked what the celebrations might look like at his junior club north of Brisbane.
The small statured Queenslander had the majority of the home crowd behind him and luck on his side for most of the final round as he set about chasing down the red hot Zunic, who was left to rue his bogey-double bogey end to round three. Finishing with a one-under 71 on Sunday, in a tie with Smith at 18-under.
The third member of the final group, Adam Bland, was the only other player with a realistic chance late in the final round Sunday. But missed putt after putt, which added up for the left hander who came up one shy of the playoff.
“I didn't have my game really today or the last two days after the first few days, but hung tough and got around with a chance to win coming down the last few holes, so it was still good to be there,” Bland said.
The only member of the crowd not in Smith’s corner it seemed was a man set on putting the 24-year-old off his game. Smith’s caddy, Sam Pinfold, eventually had enough when the repeat offender coughed as his man settled over his second shot at the final hole, having the man removed by security.
“He just said a few nasty things there on the left-hand side telling me not to choke,” Smith said of the heckler. “Then as I was approaching into – I tried to just play it off, and then as I was coming into the ball, he coughed and sneezed.
“I guess he was from New South Wales,” Smith joked.
Smith stumbled early in the fourth round, which was moved forward to avoid storms that never eventuated, making a bogey at the par-3 2nd hole but had good company with Zunic dropping a shot at the first hole, meaning the gap between the two remained at three.
Both players added birdies at the 3rd and 4th holes before Smith closed the gap with his birdie at the 7th, until he found the water from the 8th tee appearing to sink his chances.
Smith took his penalty drop and fired his approach at the flag only to hit the pin and roll all the way back to the front of the green, while Zunic’s conservative play of taking iron at the driveable par-4 looked the wise play when he found the green and setup a birdie putt.
Smith then fired up the growing crowd when he holed his long-range par effort, which Zunic could only equal meaning the two walked to the par-5 9th two shots apart.
“With Jordan's lead that he had, I thought that I had to stay aggressive,” Smith said. “Just stayed aggressive, I knew he was playing well. Yeah, didn't quite hit the shot that I wanted to hit, just pulled it a little bit. And yeah, I had a perfect number and hit the pin and yeah, that was a bit, I was like, am I not meant to win this thing? That kind of kept me rolling, kept the momentum going. That was probably key actually.”
Again, Zunic took less than driver from the tee at the par-5 and found the fairway as Smith took the aggressive play with driver and was rewarded with a far shorter club into the sloping green.
Zunic blocked his second and was lucky to stay dry, eventually making a par five, while Smith found the front of the green and took two putts and a birdie as well as a one-shot deficit to the 10th tee.
In almost a carbon copy of the first hole Zunic went long left at the 10th and walked away with a bogey giving the constantly growing crowd the expectation that it just might Smith’s day in front of his friends and family.
Tied with Zunic the Queenslander pulled his drive well left from the par-5 12th tee and found the same hazard that his playing partner found the day before. Smith took his second penalty drop of the round and laid up, as did Zunic who found the fairway trap from the tee. The New South Welshman found a greenside bunker with his third and walked off one of the easier holes on the course with his second par in as many days.
Smith left his own third short of the green and failed to get up and down, heading to the short par-4 13th off his second bogey of the day.
“I could have let it get away from me there, I guess, 12 obviously being one of the easier holes out here,” Smith said. “I hit a terrible shot. I haven't hit a shot like that since I've turned professional, I think. I don't know what happened there.”
Again, Zunic and Smith almost matched each other up the 13th, and it was the Queenslander who took his chance making a birdie three against Zunic’s par, which was the third of eight consecutive pars to close out the final round for the 25-year-old. And meant the two young Aussies were once again tied for the lead with five holes to play.
“I was pretty clear headed out there,” Smith said of the bounce back birdie. “My caddie Sam's always on to me, you know, just get to the next one, let's get a birdie. So yeah, he has a lot to do with that.”
The lead would remain tied as the two traded pars at 14, 15 and 16, with the par-5 15th providing dramatic twists and turns. The tee shot at the slight dogleg right was one Zunic worked closely with new mental coach of sorts Nick O’Hern on, during his practice round on Tuesday.
Unfortunately for the man from Wollongong he blew his tee shot way right, finding the 12th fairway. His high second shot came up short of the green before an impressive pitch looked to setup Zunic’s first birdie of the back nine. The 25-year-old missed his chance, as did Smith, meaning the deadlock remained.
“I just tried to keep doing what I've been doing the last four days. I mean, I felt really good, had a good mindset all day,” Zunic said. “Didn't quite hit it as well off the tee today which didn't give me as many birdie opportunities, and the couple birdie opportunities I had late on the back nine in regular play I just ran by the edge.”
As the players walked off the par-3 16th green the crowd got right behind Smith in his maroon shirt, with calls of “Queenslander” ringing out across the green.
“I remember going out there with dad mum watching Adam (Scott) and those type of guys up there at Coolum,” Smith said of his state pride. “And then it was really one of my goals, I wanted to win one down here, and just being in Queensland makes it a little bit more special.”
The support might have inspired the boyish Smith, who unleashed a drive down the 410-metre penultimate hole. Again, like Saturday Zunic dialled back with 2-iron from the tee and left a lengthy birdie putt which he couldn’t convert.
Smith reaped the rewards of his aggressive play from the tee, hitting it close the flag and holing for birdie and a one-shot lead as he headed to the 72nd hole.
After the disruption of the unruly fan Smith missed the green right at 18 and faced a tough chip to the back-right flag. Zunic found the putting surface and was in prime position to make a birdie and perhaps capture the title, or at the least a par and a playoff.
Zunic was unable to make his three and settled for par as Smith hit a good chip to give himself a putt for par and his first individual four round professional win.
“I had a pretty good lie down there and I was able to kind of nick it a little bit,” Smith said of the chip.
The Queenslander knew his par putt was missing almost as soon as he hit making a bogey five for a four-under round of 68, sending he and Zunic back to the 18th tee to do it all again.
This time without playing partner Bland, who couldn’t hole his own long birdie putt from the front of the green, settling for a four-under round and third on his own by three shots from Greg Norman medallist Marc Leishman and David Bransdon.
“It's been amazing,” Leishman said of his week at home. “Crowd's been really, really good. Being out there today, it's always nice to get home to Australia and just enjoy everything it has to offer. I jump at every chance I can get and I really enjoyed this one.”
Bland’s finish was good enough to secure the South Australian second place on the PGA Tour of Australasia Order of Merit, which if he chooses to take it up guarantees him a European Tour card for 2018.
“Looking forward to getting some consistency out of my game,” Bland said of his plans for 2018. “It's sort of been up and down lately and just working hard and trying to get a little bit better each year so when I go to Europe next year after the starts I can perform well.”
The first playoff hole saw both players find the fairway. Smith played first, missing the green left this time to leave the door open for overnight leader Zunic, who found the green and maintained the smile on his face during arguably the biggest moment of his career.
“I'm pretty happy with everything this week,” Zunic said of his ongoing positivity. “I've come a long way from where I was last week and missing a few cuts, so I'm happy about that.”
Smith’s chip went close as Zunic missed yet another birdie putt, squaring the hole in fours and once again sending the two exhausted young players back to the 18th tee.
The third time around Zunic missed right from the tee, just avoiding the cluster of bunkers, finding a heavy lie in the rough.
Smith, again playing first, missed the green in almost the exact spot he did in regulation leaving the door ajar for Zunic who could only advance the ball to short of the green. The chipping contest that ensued saw Zunic with the longer putt after Smith hit a stunning shot under the pressure of the home fans surrounding the green.
“That second one was a bit nasty, a bit into the grain and just stayed aggressive with it and it paid off,” Smith said of his second chip from almost the same spot.
Unfortunately, for Zunic his three-metre par putt slid by and Smith knocked his in to claim the Joe Kirkwood Cup, a goal he set himself at the start of the year.
“My goals this year were to win one down here and it's nice to tick that one off,” Smith said during the trophy presentation.
Zunic was understandably emotional after the round, having seen not only the title but a regular Tour to play on for 2018 slip through his grasp, but remained upbeat about the positive experience of leading the tournament for much of the week after a bad run of form, that saw him return earlier than planned from Europe in 2017.
“This is why we practice and this is why we dream to play these sort of events and play in front of huge crowds,” Zunic said after the playoff loss. “I loved every minute of it. I had my family in the crowd there and obviously Olivia by my side there, my girlfriend caddying. She was great, she helped me out through the whole way. You know, we did everything we could so that's all I could do. Cam was just too good on the back.”
Like Zunic, Smith and his family were full of emotion after the nerve racking victory, with the former Australian Amateur champion’s parents witnessing him win as a professional for the first time.
“Neither my mum or dad were there for the win in New Orleans,” Smith said. “To be able to win in front of them and in front of other family and friends, and then winning in Queensland makes it so much more special to me.”
The win by Smith and his fourth place finish just a week earlier at the Australian Open, an event he lost in a playoff in 2016, perhaps signals the beginning of a changing of the guard, from Smith’s boyhood idols Jason Day and Adam Scott to the next generation. With Smith planning to support his home Tour in the mould of fellow Queenslander Scott.
“This will be on my schedule as long as I have my card and full status in the U.S,” Smith said. “I'll definitely come back down here and play two or three that are here, for sure.”
“It's pretty incredible. I think Seve's on there, too,” Smith said reading the names on the Kirkwood Cup. “So, to be on the same trophy as those guys, Seve and Mr. Norman, Wayne Grady, Pete Senior, Brett Ogle, yeah, the list goes on. To be on the same trophy and those guys, I just hope I can do half as much with my golf as they did with theirs.”
Despite Smith’s modesty his impressive body of work early in his professional career suggests his name won’t be out of place among such impressive company when all is said and done.
Not bad for a kid from Wantima Country Club.