Date: May 03, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Sneaky Smith just keeps building

The 2013 Australian Amateur championship was played at Commonwealth, one of the best of the courses on the Melbourne Sandbelt.

It’s not particularly long in this age of power, but it’s a course full of strategic merit and thoughtful play is an important part of the test. It’s subtle and power alone won’t conquer it.

The club’s best player at the time, Geoff Drakeford, was in the final against the barely 20-year-old Cameron Smith and was heavily favoured, at least by the local crowd familiar with the Victorian’s huge driving and powerful irons. What hope did a cherubic, inexperienced Queenslander have against the local star?

The 36-hole match unfolded predictably over the morning 18 and when Drakeford hit a wedge into the par-five 13th hole and then extraordinarily drove 330m on to the front of the 14th green, he looked certain to head to the 15th tee 4-up.

Smith must have sensed the desperate situation and he had to know that only a birdie would halve the 14th. Surely it was time to pull out the driver and at least leave a 30-40m pitch to the flag?

Instead, he stuck to what one could only assume was a pre-determined and entirely sensible plan given the narrowness of the 14th hole by the green and hit an iron off the tee. He is a fine wedge player, as we all saw in New Orleans last week, but this time he pitched into the bunker guarding the front pin and duly lost the hole.

Drakeford seemed to be inexorably moving towards winning the championship, so dominant had he been to that point. He did hit a couple of wild drives off the last two holes, but he got away with both and was 5-up at lunch.

Not much changed during the early afternoon holes and the spectators were well entitled to assume the match would run out of holes someway through the middle of the back nine.

Smith looked underpowered in comparison and was not as obviously impressive, but there was a subtle switch in momentum as the front nine came to an end. Drakeford started to miss the greens while Smith continued to relentlessly hit them one after the other, piling on the pressure until amazingly they shook hands on the 16th green with Smith the champion.

There was more to the kid than first appeared, but even when he finished fourth in the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay it was a great finish lost amongst the drama of Jordan Spieth winning and Dustin Johnson three-putting the 72nd green.

That huge cheque earnt him a US PGA Tour card, but last year he promptly lost it with some not quite good enough golf.

He hit the ball a decent distance (about the same as Greg Norman when he was the longest driver on tour) but 130 players drove it further and 160 hit more greens.

It’s a recipe, but not one to rely on.

He played well enough at the end of the 2016 to get his job back and this year he has only missed three cuts of 16, he’s picked up eight yards from the tee and he is hitting more greens. He’s not in the Graham Marsh greens in regulation category quite yet, but seemingly insignificant statistical improvement can equate to two or three shots a week and many times it’s the difference between making and missing a cut.

His win with Jonas Blixt gives him some security and if his play at Commonwealth less than four years ago is any indication, he will continue to sneak up the rankings without anyone paying much attention to a game worthy of a lot of it.