Cameron Smith will look to defend his British Open championship

Cameron Smith will look to defend his British Open championship

It’s possible that one of last July’s guests at the Dunvegan Hotel, who fancies himself just a 9-iron from the Old Course, remembers Cameron Smith’s British Open more than he does.

It wouldn’t take long, because Smith recently remembered more or less this about the Sunday that left him the champion of a major tournament: teeing off, missing a putt on the ninth hole, knowing he’d taken the lead, and ending up with “the feeling of not really being joy, but the feeling of relief.”

He considers this, a memory mostly alleviated by brilliance or error, a strength.

“That’s one of my biggest assets: hitting a golf swing and forgetting about it,” Smith said in an interview. He has friends, like every professional golfer, who can “remember every shot of every tournament they played.”

“But that’s something,” he continued, “that I’ve never been able to do.”

It was he who spent the last year filling the Open winner’s claret decanter with beer – Australia’s XXXX Gold, he decided, tastes the best – and handing it around.

Now comes the first major defense of the title, which begins on Thursday at Royal Liverpool, the English ground that will host the 151st Open.

Assessing Smith’s year so far is a choose-your-own-adventure analytical exercise. The Masters Tournament, where he finished in the top 10 three years in a row, yielded a disappointment in April, when he tied for 34th in the only major tournament where he never failed to make the weekend.

But Smith’s May exit at Oak Hill was his best PGA Championship performance of his career (a tie for ninth), and after losing three US Open exits in five years, he left Los Angeles with a fourth. place. Less than two weeks ago, he won a LIV Golf tournament near London, his second solo victory since joining the Saudi-backed tour last summer. The event was, perhaps, exceptional preparation for the taunts and terrors of Royal Liverpool, even for a former Open champion.

“I think the wind is very different in England and Scotland,” noted Marc Leishman, one of Smith’s LIV teammates, this month. “It is much heavier. Getting used to it is very important, taking off the effect of the ball. Cam is really good back then, and throws his wedges and puts on top of that, and he’s a formidable opponent.

Smith’s slump – a relative term – at the start of the year likely stemmed from a holiday break that was the longest of the 29-year-old’s career. He won the Australian PGA Championship, missed the cut at the Australian Open, and was in desperate need of a reboot after years of pandemic turmoil and a rush to the global spotlight. Even now, he says, he’s a professional athlete who “prefers people don’t know me.” If it were up to him, he’d probably be fishing.

And so, while the hiatus was a good, vital ointment for his mind, it was, at least in the interim, a spell on his golf game. As soon as he returned to competition, his preparation shortcomings became clear. He had average results in two of the first three LIV events of the year and missed the cut at a tournament in Saudi Arabia.

He still preferred to practice postponing in a mirror in his Florida office (there, rather than on a lawn, “because I’m lazy”), but he accepted, albeit grudgingly, that his driver needed more work. When he arrived in Los Angeles for the US Open in June, he was eagerly taking a traditional approach: don’t worry too much about distance, try to hit the ball downfield, take a chance for the birdie.

He finished 50th in driving distance but had 19 birdies, tying for second in the field and equaling the winner, Wyndham Clark. At Augusta, he had been 31st in driving distance and tied for 37th in birdies with 13.

“I feel like I worked really hard on it, and the golf has been really good, and so it was just a case of letting go and letting things be,” he said of his resurgence. “And sure enough, the last two majors, I started to feel really good.”

But Smith’s easygoing wizardry, so clear to anyone who logs on to the Internet and spends a minute watching him conquer the Road Hole the Sunday he won the claret jug, stems in large part from his poise. He got it from his mother, he thinks, perhaps unsurprising for a player whose early years on the PGA Tour were marked by homesickness.

The pandemic has not helped. When he won the tour’s Players Championship in March 2022, his mother and sister were at TPC Sawgrass, having just been reunited with Smith after more than two years of border restrictions. Six months later, he was ranked No. 2 in the world and was one of LIV’s hottest signings.

But so far he has managed to avoid being seen as a villain, even before last month’s surprise announcement of a potential detente between the warring circuits. He spent a lot of time airing grievances in public. He acknowledged shortcomings in the LIV courses compared to those on the PGA Tour. When his world ranking dropped, which was inevitable as LIV tournaments were not accredited, he didn’t pounce because his chance of reaching No. 1 was diminishing.

“I made my bed and I’m happy to sleep in it,” he said in an interview in March. Now, with a tentative peace perhaps taking hold in professional golf, he’s wondering if he’ll have a chance after all.

“Don’t get me wrong: I want to beat everyone else,” he said. “But there’s no reason why you can’t do it with a smile on your face.”

He will face 155 other men this week, all of them clamoring to deny him another year with the claret jug. Now ranked seventh in the world and gearing up for a field that includes more than a dozen other Open winners, he has a plan B for his drinks.

“The Aussie PGA Trophy is really cool,” he said. “You can definitely put a lot more beer in this one.”

Still, he said this week, his eyes filled with tears as he handed the claret decanter back to Open organizers.

“I wasn’t letting it go,” he said at a news conference on Monday. “But it was just a moment that I don’t think you think about, and then all of a sudden it’s there and, yes, you want it back.”

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