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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cameron Smith won a British Open. He’s glad he has mostly forgotten how.

Cameron Smith of Australia at a news conference ahead of the 151st British Open that begins on Thursday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

By Alan Blinder

It is possible that one of last July’s customers at the Dunvegan Hotel, which fancies itself only a 9-iron away from the Old Course, remembers more of Cameron Smith’s British Open than he does.

It would not take much, because Smith recently recalled roughly this about the Sunday that left him a major tournament champion: teeing off, missing a putt on the ninth hole, learning he had seized the lead, then finishing to “the feeling of not really joy, but the feeling of relief.”

He considers this, a memory mostly unburdened by brilliance or blunder, a strength.

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

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

He is the one who has spent the past year filling the Open winner’s claret jug with beer — Australia’s XXXX Gold, he concluded, tastes best — and passing it around.

Now comes his first major title defense, which will begin Thursday at Royal Liverpool, the English course that is the site of the 151st Open.

Assessing Smith’s year is an exercise in choose-your-own-adventure analysis. The Masters Tournament, where he had finished in the top 10 for three consecutive years, yielded a letdown in April, when he tied for 34th at the only major tournament where he has never failed to make the weekend.

But Smith’s May outing at Oak Hill was his best PGA Championship performance of his career (a tie for ninth), and after missing three U.S. Open cuts in five years, he left Los Angeles with a fourth-place finish. Less than two weeks ago, he won a LIV Golf tournament near London, his second individual victory since he joined the Saudi-backed circuit last summer. The event was, perhaps, exceptional preparation for the taunts and terrors of Royal Liverpool, even for a past Open champion.

“The wind is very different, I feel like, in England and Scotland,” Marc Leishman, one of Smith’s LIV teammates, said. “It’s a lot heavier. Getting used to that is pretty important, taking spin off the ball. Cam is very good at that time, and throw his wedges and putting on top of that, and he’s a pretty formidable opponent.”

Smith’s slump — a relative term — at the year’s start probably had its origins in a holiday break that was the longest of the 29-year-old’s career. He had won the Australian PGA Championship, missed the cut at the Australian Open and was desperately in need of a reboot after years of pandemic tumult and a rush into the global spotlight. Even now, he says, he is a professional athlete who would “prefer that people don’t know me.” If he had his way, he’d probably be out fishing.

Although the hiatus was a fine, vital salve for his mind, it was, at least in the interim, a hex on his golf game. Once he returned to competition, the shortcomings of his preparation were clear. He had middling finishes in two of the first three LIV events of the year, and he missed the cut at a tournament in Saudi Arabia.

He still preferred to practice putting off a mirror in his Florida office (there, instead of on a green, “because I’m lazy”) but accepted, however begrudgingly, that his driver was in need of greater work. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles for the U.S. Open in June, he was eagerly embracing an old-school approach: Don’t worry too much about distance, try to land the ball in the fairway, have a chance for birdie.

He finished 50th in driving distance but had 19 birdies, tied for second in the field and equal to 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 on that quite hard, and the golf has been really good, and then it was just a case of letting go and letting stuff happen,” he said of his resurgence. “And for sure, the last couple of majors it’s started to feel really good.”

But Smith’s at-ease sorcery, so plain to anyone who goes online and spends a minute watching him conquer the Road Hole on the Sunday he won the claret jug, flows in large part from his equilibrium. He draws it from his mother, he thinks, perhaps not surprising for a player whose early PGA Tour years were marked by homesickness.

The pandemic did not help. When he won the tour’s Players Championship in March 2022, his mother and sister were at TPC Sawgrass, having just reunited with Smith after more than two years of border restrictions. Six months later, he was ranked second in the world and was one of LIV’s most hyped signings.

But he has managed to avoid being viewed like quite so much of a villain, even before last month’s surprise announcement of a potential détente between the warring circuits. He has spent only so much time airing grievances in public. He has acknowledged shortcomings in LIV’s fields compared to the PGA Tour’s. When his world ranking tumbled, which was inevitable since LIV tournaments have not been accredited, he did not lash out because his shot at reaching No. 1 was fading.

“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 is wondering whether he will have a shot, 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 preparing for a field that includes more than a dozen fellow Open winners, he has a backup plan for his beverages.

“The Aussie PGA Trophy is pretty cool,” he said. “You can definitely fit a lot more beer in that one.”

Still, he said this week, his eyes welled with tears when he returned the claret jug to the Open’s organizers.

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

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