Aussie golfing sensation Cameron Smith looks like a larrikin and is making golf cool again.
His trademark mullet started as a joke during 2020 COVID lockdowns, but when PGA Tour play resumed it made him stand out from the crowd of stiff golfing robots on America’s professional circuit and a cult following among golf heads has now exploded into full-blown superstardom, at home and abroad.
Cameron Smith celebrates on the 18th green after holing the winning birdie putt at St Andrews.Credit:AP
Winning The Open, especially in its 150th edition at the home of golf, St Andrews, will do that.
Now junior golfers in Australia and America are showing up on the range with locks spilling out under the back of their caps and over the collars of their polo shirts.
Smith is just the fifth Australian to win the famed Claret Jug. He’d had it in possession for barely minutes when controversy erupted.
In his winner’s press conference, he was asked by a British reporter whether rumours he was about to defect to LIV Golf, the rival startup tour backed by Saudi Arabia that is tearing the world of professional golf apart, were true.
He bristled visibly at the question, while declining to answer.
“I just won the British Open and you’re asking about that? I think that’s pretty … not that good,” Smith said.
The reporter persisted.
“I don’t know mate. My team around me worries about all of that stuff. I’m just here to win golf tournaments.”
Why does where Cam Smith decides to play golf matter so much?
It’s a story that’s a mix of politics, sport, astronomical sums of money, and revenge.
Now Smith joins another Queenslander, the Shark Greg Norman, at the centre of it.
So what is LIV Golf anyway?
LIV Golf is an upstart professional golf tour funded entirely by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, a vehicle for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s astronomical petrochemical wealth to diversify its economy and burnish its reputation.
LIV’s tournaments last three rounds, rather than the traditional four, feature limited fields of 54 players (LIV is the Roman numeral for 54) and a shotgun start, meaning all golfers are on the course at once.
There are no cuts, a teams component, and golfers win money even if they finish last in the field, unlike traditional events where missing the cut means a golfer goes home empty-handed.
These elements are derided by traditionalists, who say they undermine tournament golf’s competitive foundations.
The riches on offer are extraordinary, with $US4 million first prizes in each event and a minimum payout for last place of $US120,000.
For context, before LIV, the richest first-place prize in history was won by Smith, $US3.5 million, at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, the flagship event of the PGA Tour.
But even more than the prize money are the head-spinning signing bonuses: $US200 million to Phil Mickelson, $US150 million to Dustin Johnson, $US100 million to Bryson DeChambeau.
These sums just aren’t available to PGA Tour players, even the very best of them.
In his entire career, Tiger Woods has won $US120 million on the course on the PGA Tour; Mickelson is in second place with $US95 million; Johnson is third with $US74 million.
But the LIV riches have come at a cost to reputations.
Once beloved, Mickelson is now a pariah and exiled himself from the opportunity to defend his history-making PGA Championship won in heady circumstances last July.
Defectors to LIV have faced uncomfortable press conferences with embarrassing and inadequate answers to questions about how they can support – tacitly or overtly – a regime with such a poor record on human rights.
The unspoken answer is obvious: the money.
How do the Saudis make money from it?
In short, they don’t. Unlike the PGA Tour, which raises money from TV contracts, sponsors and selling tickets to tournaments, LIV is not a business in the traditional sense of the word.
LIV is currently streamed for free on YouTube; instead the goal is to use sport as a key plank of its investment strategy, alongside hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in Formula 1 and European football.
This isn’t like Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, or even the damaging Super League saga, which had an underlying business rationale.
Critics of the regime say LIV is a brazen attempt at “sportswashing”, using professional sport to make people in the west feel good about the country and overlook its human rights abuses.
The point is that it may never need to make money depending on the kingdom’s willingness to underwrite the losses; the Saudi’s sovereign investment fund has a reported $600 billion to spend.
The mostly outraged American golf press are aghast at the rival venture, which some have darkly labelled the “Bonesaw Tour” in reference to the dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was cut to pieces at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018 in an operation believed to be directly overseen by Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman, which he denies.
MBS evidently loves his golf.
What does Greg Norman have to do with it, and why is he so controversial?
In November, LIV revealed Norman as its CEO, an announcement greeted with scepticism if not ridicule by the PGA Tour cognoscenti.
With no players and no concrete plans, the rival “tour” was considered a joke. No one’s laughing now.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman.Credit:Getty
The Shark has never been short on self-belief; check his Instagram for confirmation.
While his swashbuckling golf in the 80s and 90s made him a huge star, he put fellow professionals’ noses out of joint with his self-regard and love of money.
For years he clashed with the PGA Tour; it rankled that he had to ask permission from the American PGA Tour to play events in his home country, and to fully exploit what he saw as his global value by taking his game beyond America’s borders.
Seeing himself as an entrepreneur as much as a golfer, he tried in 1994 to set up a rival World Tour with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports, an ambition that was thwarted by canny PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Fincham.
In Norman, the Saudis found a willing and motivated frontman who has sufficient stature in the game to sway some of golf’s biggest names. No doubt they are paying him fabulously, but Norman also revels in sticking up the establishment.
Who is Cam Smith?
Smith, 28, is a laconic Queenslander but don’t let his appearance and demeanour confuse you.
Quiet and humble in interviews and not given to overstatement, with a golf club in hand, he is a stone cold killer.
Adam Scott, who congratulated Smith warmly as he stepped off the 18th green at the Old Course and whom Smith has surpassed as the flagbearer for Australian golf, said Smith has learned to play the game “very well, very quickly”.
Cameron Smith during the first round of the British Open.Credit:AP
“He’s tough and he’s owned his game,” Scott said. “I think his mind is a big asset, as is his putter.”
On the course he is utterly fearless, prepared to risk it all in a quest to win a tournament.
If anything, the knock on Smith has been that at times he is too reckless, refusing to dial back the risk when the course or conditions demand it.
At Augusta in April he was in the thick of it on Sunday when a poorly executed shot on the famed par 3 12th hole landed in the creek, effectively ending his duel with American Scottie Scheffler for the coveted green jacket.
Yet that aggression has been the hallmark of his biggest successes.
At TPC Sawgrass in March, he won the biggest professional payday in history (a record subsequently broken by LIV), $3.5 million for winning the Players Championship.
The signature moment was when he stuffed a 9 iron to a foot at the hell-raising signature par 3 island hole, an audacious shot the with even a slight miscue would have guaranteed disaster.
Even then, as he tried to close out the victory on the 18th, a wayward drive and a punched recovery shot from the trees and into the water threatened to doom him at the final hurdle.
Smith fans wondered if he hadn’t done the same at St Andrews, this time on Saturday, squandering a two-shot lead with some highly questionable decisions, including a double bogey on the par 5 13th hole that involved a shot standing waist deep in a bunker as if he was playing tee-ball.
Yet on Sunday, four shots back of Rory McIlroy, he hunted the odds-on favourite down in a scintillating 8-under round of 64, including five consecutive birdies between holes 10 and 14.
Smith moved to the United States in 2016 to chase his PGA Tour dream and he lives in a mansion that backs on to Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway in Jacksonville Beach.
The home is just up the road from TPC Sawgrass and the headquarters of the PGA Tour, and has strong “man cave” vibes.
There’s a 40-foot Frontrunner fishing boat docked at his private jetty and fast cars, an Audi RS 6 wagon and Nissan GT-R, in the garage.
The lawns are greenskeeper-standard; Smith tends them lovingly as a mental release away from golf.
Despite the American dream lifestyle, Smith’s love for home runs deep. Just as Tiger Woods always wears red on Sundays, Cam picks polos in natty shades of maroon or pink in homage to Queensland’s State of Origin team.
He spent the Sunday morning of the Masters packing XXXX beers brought to Augusta National by an Aussie friend in an esky, lest he forget them on the drive home to Florida after the tournament.
He’s a sledger who would fit in well with the Australian cricket team, a legacy of his diminutive stature growing up in a sport that increasingly favours athletic brutes, though insists it has to be good natured.
The Players win was extra special because his mother and sister were in town, the first time he’d seen them since the pandemic. He has said repeatedly he can’t wait to get home and play golf in a traditional Australian summer.
This might be the leverage point for Norman, and is an under-regarded aspect of LIV’s appeal to the US-centric golfing press who are in the main appalled by the split.
Will Cam jump?
While he idolises fellow Queenslander Norman, Smith hasn’t seemed to be motivated by money. Rather, the pure competition revs his engine.
In September last year on the cusp of his breakout, Smith was in the mix for the $US15 million purse at the season ending Tour Championship.
Asked what such a sum of money would mean if he won it, Smith said: “I don’t know, I’m pretty set to be honest. I’m good. I’m good with what I’ve got. I don’t know what I’d do to be honest. Maybe some more fishing equipment.”
At the time he had career earnings of US$13 million on the PGA Tour; that has since swelled to $US27 million after his win at St Andrews.
Another Aussie winner of the Claret Jug, Ian Baker-Finch, reckons Smith is worth $150 million to LIV.
If the reported sums paid to Mickelson and Johnson are any indication, this could even be an underestimate.
They are fading stars whereas Smith, at 28, is the game’s cool future.
His win at the Open means he has guaranteed entry to golf’s four majors for the next five years (and to the Open until he is 60).
As an Aussie, he might not revere the PGA Tour as someone like US PGA winner Justin Thomas – one of the PGA Tour’s staunchest defenders – does.
Like Norman, Smith wants to play his home championships in the Aussies summer (and there is speculation Norman wants to bring a LIV event to Sydney) – yet the American dominated PGA Tour has, leviathan like, spread its tentacles across the entire golfing schedule leaving little room to grow the game elsewhere.
Adam Scott, another fading star, and Marc Leishman, Smith’s close mate on the Tour, are also said to be Norman targets, who wants to assemble an all-Aussie LIV team.
At the US Open in June with speculation feverish about who might jump to LIV next, Smith said: “This week my focus is to play golf. I’m far from the smartest person in the room. I’m here to follow a white golf ball around.”
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