PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Cameron Smith wasn’t intimidated. Not on a course he knows so well, but purposefully avoids playing until he has to.
A rain-plagued Players ended Monday evening with more rain and a masterful finish by Jacksonville resident and Australian native Cameron Smith.
As the best field in golf gave chase and failed to make up ground, Smith’s putting precision helped deliver him a one-stroke win, a victory worth $3.6 million, the highest payout in Players history. Smith finished 13-under 275, just in front of Anirban Lahiri.
“It was obviously a long week. Yeah, today I think I just kind of held in there today,” Smith said. “Lots of birdies, kept staying aggressive, kept trying to make birdies, and went through a little bit of a lull there in the middle, I guess. And yeah, just bounced back really nice and proud of the way I hung in there.”
Using a stunning display of irons and putting, Smith was cruising until the final hole.
His drive went far right and into the pine straw and his punch out was too much, rolling across the fairway and into the water. The short game bailed him out again. Smith hit his drop to within 3 feet and he sank his bogey putt.
Playing one group behind Smith, Lahiri was the only golfer capable of catching him. But Lahiri’s approach was short and right of the green and his birdie chip to force a playoff was 3 feet short.
That there was any sort of drama after Smith’s dominance provided a bit of late theater. He was brilliant, needing just 26 putts on Monday and notching 10 birdies.
Rough, rain, a crush of contenders, Smith handled everything the Stadium Course had to offer.
When left nursing a one-stroke lead when he stepped to the tee box on No. 16, Smith had his worst drive of the day, a duck hook down the left side and into a clump of pine straw. He punched out through the trees, stuck his approach roughly 50 feet from the pin and then two-putted for par.
How about the two most difficult holes on the course after that?
Smith’s tee shot on the famous island green stuck 4 feet from the cup, the second-closest landing of the final round.
“I’d be lying if I said I was aiming there,” Smith said. “I was probably aiming 10 feet left of that. But still wanted to stay aggressive, still wanted to make birdie.”
It was a relatively star-less leaderboard for a tournament that was shaken out of its normal routine for the third straight year.
The pandemic ended things after one round in 2020 and led to a tournament rife with safety precautions and limited attendance last year. The return to normal this year sounded good until the area was pounded by 4.8 inches of rain during the first three days of the tournament and pushed the tournament into Monday for the first time since 2005.
The winner that year? Ponte Vedra Beach resident Fred Funk.
So, it was only fitting that another golfer who calls the area home managed to tame the Stadium Course and its elements.
Smith knows Sawgrass well, but he’s not a regular on the course because it plays so much differently in non-tournament time. Playing to Stadium Course with friends is one thing. But it’s set up so much harder when the pros take to it that Smith opts to play elsewhere when he’s home.
“I try not to play it because it’s typically just set up a little bit softer and a little bit slower,” he said. “I found myself — I thought moving here originally it would be a huge advantage, but I found out after a few missed cuts in a row that it maybe wasn’t.”
Only two major champions dotted the late Monday cluster of 15 golfers within two strokes of the lead, Keegan Bradley and Shane Lowry. Bradley was in pursuit until the very end, courtesy of a sizzling back nine that he was 5-under on until his ragged finish.
But Smith was poised until the end.
When the field provided pressure, Smith hit the accelerator to stay in front, with his putting the difference. Smith had nine one putts through his first 13 holes. Putting for par on both Nos. 14 and 15 and up by a shot on Keegan Bradley, Smith stared down both with the coolness of a major champion. He hit a 14-foot putt on the par-4, 14th and then sank an 8-footer to save par on the next hole.
His wild up-and-down day ran the gamut of emotions, from blistering to nearly off the rails.
Smith opened with four birdies and his short game was superb.
Smith sank a 38-foot putt on No. 1, then stuck his approach shots on both Nos. 2 and 4 within 10 feet. He sank both putts for birdie. As hot as Smith was on start, he struggled to make it to the turn. Smith went bogey-bogey-bogey to close his front, including a woeful three-putt on the par-5 ninth.
That didn’t carry over.
While Smith was sizzling, numerous contenders fell off early in the final round. Lahiri was right there until the finish, a career achievement for a golfer who entered ranked No. 322 in the world and questioning his future in the sport. Lahiri earned $2.1 million for the runner-up finish
“It’s huge, because when you go through such a lean period for such a long time, you start asking yourself, man, was that a flash in the pan? What are you doing? You haven’t played good in so long,” he said.
“Your belief takes a hit, so this for me is — I’m going to re-cement the foundation and work upwards from here.”
Sebastian Munoz and Doug Ghim, part of a cluster of players one shot back and tied for second entering the final round, had double bogeys right out of gate Monday and never recovered. Sam Burns had a 3-over front nine and fell from second back to the pack.
Bradley joined the mix with a string of three straight birdies from Nos. 9-11 and stayed within a stroke of Smith until he went bogey, double bogey on the finishing holes.
Another golfer with local ties, former Jacksonville University star Russell Knox finished T6 at 8-under 280. Dustin Johnson tied the course record with a final round 9-under 63, including holing out for eagle on the par-5 No. 9 hole to wrap up his round. Johnson jumped 50 spots from where he started, finishing T9 with a 7-under 281.