— Golf Australia (@GolfAust) June 22, 2015
First impressions stick with people, and when Tony Meyer, the Queensland national coach, set eyes upon Australian golf's new sensation Cameron Smith, he was just 16 and playing in the state team at an interstate series.
Meyer knew about Smith; he already had a reputation as a golfing wunderkind. But what shook him was how comfortable the teen was in the environment. "It was clear that he was very comfortable in the group, even though he was a lot younger than some of the guys and he certainly wasn’t the best player in that team,'' Meyer recalls.
People who know Cameron Smith will tell you these stories ad nauseam, and the expression that is often used is grounded. Calm is another adjective that bobs up. It is the type of attitude that professional golfers crave, like when you are standing on the fairway at the closing hole of a United States Open, as Smith did last Sunday, and you knock your three wood shot inside a metre from the cup, tap it in for eagle, finish tied for fourth, and secure your card to play on the United States PGA Tour.
Even Fox, the US Open's host television network, deigned to show this lightning bolt of a golf shot (although they did not bother broadcasting the tap-in eagle that followed, nor much of Smith's final round before that). At home on the Sunshine Coast, his longtime coach Grant Field, was watching on television, having cancelled his Monday appointments at his Twin Waters academy. "He’s got a sense of occasion, Cameron,'' said Field. "He’s always done that.''
That single shot announced Smith, the little 21-year-old from Brisbane, as a future force in the game. First, it gave him a tied-fourth position in the Open, his first-ever major. Second, it logged enough Fedex Cup points to give him temporary membership to play the rest of this season on the United States PGA Tour. Third, it earned him $400,000, which put with the cheque he earned for a fifth-place in the CIMB Championship in Kuala Lumpur last November, gives him enough cash to know that he will earn a card to play on the US Tour in the 2015-16 season.
His world ranking soared from 167th to 89th. He is now in the Masters tournament for 2016 as well as the US Open. It was the golf shot that set up a career.
Cameron Smith grew up in the northern Brisbane suburb of Bray Park, and attended the local school where ironically, he once met the more famous Cameron Smith, of NRL fame, at a clinic. He was introduced to golf at a young age by his father Des, a scratch-marker and club champion at the unpretentious little Wantina Golf Club, where he still plays often and where a bunch of the local members watched on a live stream in the clubhouse on Monday. He is also a Royal Queensland member.
He was always good, winning everything there was to win as an amateur, and always small, just 67 kilograms when he played most of his amateur golf. He triumphed in the Australian junior championship, the Australian Stroke Play Championship (at Victoria in 2011) and the Australian Amateur championship at Commonwealth in 2013, was part of the Queensland Academy of Sport's golf program under Meyer, and Golf Australia's elite national programs. His early idols included Tiger Woods, and then Adam Scott.
Grant Field had first seen him as a tiny 10-year-old in a junior squad in a program at Coolum and Pelican Waters with a bunch of other players, where by chance, Smith was in his group. The next year, Des Smith asked Field if he could coach his son on a formal basis, and soon enough, Field noticed an ability to perform under pressure. "When he won the Australian Stroke Play, he birdied the last two and birdied the playoff hole to win, when he won the Australian Amateur he was six down (against Geoff Drakeford in the final) and won about eight straight holes. He’s got that ability to flick a switch, so to speak. He can go up a gear. Every time he’s gone to that next level, he’s played well. He hasn’t struggled.''
Field also observed a solid family backing. "His whole family are great, never pressured him into everything. If he played poorly, there were never any repercussions like there are for a lot of kids. I remember talking to Des about it once and he said ‘even if Cam never went on and never made a dollar, I know the experience he’s got, and if my kid’s out playing golf, he’s not in a shopping centre causing trouble. He’s travelled to a dozen countries and he’s had amazing experiences’.
"That was his outlook and it makes a massive difference. Because of that he’s never been scared, he’s never had the pressure of trying not to play poorly. He’s always played as good as he could be. That makes a difference with kids and their development.’’
Smith's game is not about overpowering a course (he is just 180cm and 76kg). His strength is wedge play, and the serenity of his mind. "He’s always been able to switch on and switch off from golf,'' said Meyer. "It doesn’t matter whether he’s had a good round or a bad round, which he doesn’t do that often, he’s able to switch off. This week’s a good example of that, his ability to be in contention and still play his normal game speaks volumes."
It's a point that Field also makes. "The thing for me with Cam is you can have all the ability in the world, and there’s plenty of guys you could watch next to Cameron and you’d say ‘he’s as good, he might be better’, but Cam ticks all the boxes. He has a great short game, he hits it good, his attitude is right, there’s nothing you would look at and say ‘that’s suspect’. Just the way he conducts himself is important. If he has a bad day he goes ‘yeah, whatever’ and moves on. He doesn’t hold on to anything for too long, doesn’t stress.’’
Brad James, high performance director at Golf Australia, believes that with natural physical maturity and continued hard work with his fitness team Smith will have the ability to hit the ball longer. But he likes the fact there are no real gaps in his game. “I don’t think there are any weaknesses to his game. All aspects are good. His short game has always been extremely good. He’s very grounded. He has a good team around him and a good family. Great support from the family. Also his Dad wasn’t one to interfere. He let Cam do it. Cam was playing golf because Cam wanted to play golf.’’
Smith turned professional in 2013 after he won the national amateur title, but like so many teenagers, he was not without troubles in the transition. James recalls the Queenslander being reluctant to embrace the mantra of weight-training. “It’s very normal,'' said James. "These kids are only 16, 17, 18 years old and they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s our job to educate them and eventually they learn. Our job is to make sure they don’t fall too far that they can’t get back up.’’
In the most notable incident of his transition, in November 2013, Smith missed his tee time at the Web.com Tour's qualifying school in Texas, his big shot at finding a way to the US Tour, letting down not only himself but all his supporters. He turned up to the course at Woodlands Country Club in Houston on the Wednesday for practise, only to find that qualifying had already begun and his tee time had passed. He was disqualified.
"In his mind, he was thinking it started on Thursday,'' said Field. "He was devastated. I remember him ringing me and he was just shattered, absolutely shattered.''
Brad James also took a phone call. "I remember that,'' said James. "It would've been a hard call to make.''
But true to his temperament, he moved on, went to Australasian qualifying school and earned his card, then also the Asian Tour school. In Asia in 2014, he strung together so many good performances that he was top-five on the money list in just his first year as a professional. "He copped it on the chin, went back to tour school, and he’s worked his way from there,'' said Field. "You learn from it, you move on and to his credit, he did that. He's better for it.''
The irony is that had Smith qualified for the Web.com, he would have needed to play a full season at the very least to graduate to the main tour. As it has turned out, he has leapfrogged that particular step, which is virtually unheard of. Field says he knows of only seven players who have secured a US Tour card through invitations; Meyer knows of no Australians who have.
Ask his coaches and backers, and none of them is surprised that Cameron Smith has made it big time. But even they are all shocked at how quickly it happened. Which leads to the question about his future. This week, he tees it up in the Travelers Championship on the US Tour.
Tony Meyer looks at his US Open performance and can't help but wonder what is possible. "He was in contention going into the weekend but he was able to shoot two under-par scores over the weekend on golf course where not many guys were shooting under par. It shows that mentally he’s very strong and he’s very good at being able to switch on and off. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins on the PGA Tour in the next six to 12 months. He’s a win away from maybe top 20 in the world so who know’s what’s possible?’’
Brad James also is excited. "What he's achieved is amazing. He has to keep developing, not get too comfortable with what he’s done. Sometimes that can breed complacency, so it’s important that his team and he hold everyone accountable to make him better every day.’’
As for Grant Field, he has gone back to instructing, but he knows that the day Smith was placed in his group as a 10-year-old on the Sunshine Coast has changed his life.
The television networks might not be ignoring Cameron Smith for too much longer. “I think he can be a top-10 player in the world,'' said Field. "Can he be the No. 1 player? If he decides he wants to work that hard, potentially he could be. But definitely I think he can be top 10 in the world.’’