By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The name Cameron Smith has long resonated in sports-mad Australia but more for the achievements of a retired rugby league star than the prodigious golfing talent that tore up the back nine on the way to British Open glory.
That may be set to change after Smith’s stunning one-stroke triumph at St Andrews, where the 28-year-old became the first Australian to hoist the Claret Jug since Greg Norman in 1993.
His namesake, the former Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australia champion, may now have to become used to seeing his name bracketed with rugby league in media reports, a fate that often befell “Cameron Smith, the golfer”.
Australian golf fans have long known Smith’s quality and followed him closely since he finished joint fourth at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, won by another then-21-year-old by the name of Jordan Speith.
Smith’s blistering second shot from 283 yards at the closing hole at that tournament nearly fell in for an albatross and marked the emergence of a talent worthy of the company of compatriots Adam Scott and Jason Day.
It certainly opened doors, with the top-five finish securing U.S. Tour membership for the rest of the year and an invitation to the next Masters.
With vast space for courses and a track record of producing major champions, Australia has rarely wanted for golfing talent.
But until Sunday, the biggest names had endured only frustration at the majors since Day’s PGA Championship win in 2015.
Smith suffered his own heartbreak this year at the Masters where his final-day chase of eventual winner Scottie Scheffler ended abruptly when his tee-shot at the 12th splashed into Rae’s Creek and led to a triple-bogey.
A collective groan rang out from the nation’s newspapers the following day but on Monday, Smith was hailed as a master putter by local media which carried glowing tributes from tour rivals.
“He’s tough, and he’s owned his game. He’s learned how to play golf very well, very quickly,” said Scott.
Smith’s only disappointment at St Andrews was to not have family watching green-side, a regret his father Des now shares after deciding against the long trip from Brisbane.
“There were plenty of tears, it probably got to the point where I couldn’t talk any more,” Des Smith told Fox Sports of a phone call he shared with his son at the clubhouse.
“It’s all tiny little steps, he’s gone from one stage to another and he’s always excelled every time he’s stepped up to another stage so I always thought he was going to win a major.”
Smith’s breakthrough makes the mullet-haired golfer hot property and will surely boost his value for organisers of the breakaway LIV series.
Smith bristled when asked if he was on the verge of joining LIV but did not deny reports he might be among a slew of top players about to jump ship from the U.S. Tour.
A number of Australian media pundits have criticised LIV as a ‘sportswashing’ vehicle for Saudi Arabian human rights abuses and claimed Smith’s idol Greg Norman has damaged his legacy for spearheading it.
Having only just fulfilled his major dream and earned a nation’s thanks, Smith’s next career move will be closely watched, with a decision to join the Norman-backed tour unlikely to generate universal acclaim.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Stephen Coates)