St Andrews, Scotland: In winning the Masters Tournament last year, Hideki Matsuyama became the first participant from the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) to claim a Major title.
Some 15 months later, another milestone has been achieved with Cameron Smith’s stunning success in the 150th Open Championship. He’s the first AAC competitor to go on to hold aloft the Claret Jug. He did so with a back-nine charge - including six birdies in his final nine holes - to hold off young upstart Cameron Young and former World No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
Unlike Japan’s Matsuyama (triumphant in the AAC in 2010 and 2011), Australian Smith does not have his name inscribed on the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship trophy. But what he does have etched in his memory is the brilliant play of Matsuyama when Smith encountered him for the first time in the 2011 edition of the AAC at the Singapore Island Country Club.
“Yes, I remember my first Asia-Pacific Amateur I played with Hideki in the last group, I think. He ended up winning the tournament,” said Smith, who ended in fourth place in a high-quality field that also included Korean Kim Si-woo and New Zealanders Ben Campbell and Ryan Fox.
“He (Matsuyama) was probably the first player I played with that I really thought he was the best player in the world. He was hitting iron shots, shaping it into different pins. He was really the first guy that I saw do that. Lots of good memories there,” he added.
Smith made his second and last appearance in the AAC at Thailand’s Amata Spring Country Club in 2012, finishing in a share of seventh place. The AAC will return to Amata Spring this fall for the 2022 edition.
As in the previous year, Smith finished behind Matsuyama, who himself finished behind three other players, including Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan, the runner-up, and China’s Guan Tianlang, the surprise 14-year-old champion.
As Smith prepares to celebrate his 29th birthday next month, he can proudly reflect on a path that he was set on at the age of three when his father, Des, a well-known club baseballer before becoming a scratch golfer, took him to Wantima Country Club, outside of Brisbane.
Smith was playing six-hole competitions as a five-year-old with cut-down clubs. By the age of 10 he had a single-digit handicap. His amateur wins included the 2013 Australian Amateur Championship, 2012 Australian Junior Championship, 2012 Australian Stroke Play Championship and 2011 Nomura Cup individual title. He also represented Australia at the 2012 Eisenhower Trophy and turned pro the following year.
Although he arrived at St Andrews with a modest Open Championship record in four previous appearance (best of tied 20th at Royal Portrush in 2019), Smith has had numerous close calls at the other Majors, excelling in particular at Augusta National with four consecutive top-10 finishes at the Masters. He tied for third this year.
In January, he'd won the Sentry Tournament of Champions with a total of 34-under 258, the first player in PGA Tour history to finish a 72-hole event 34-under or better. Two months later he was victorious in The Players Championship, edging Indian Anirban Lahiri by one shot to earn his fifth PGA Tour title and second of the season.
“To go away with the win (at The Players) was a really big confidence booster. I knew it wasn’t going to be too long before I got one of these (Majors). I’ve knocked on the door, I think, maybe one too many times now. So it's nice to get it done,” said Smith, who equalled the lowest score to par in an Open, 20-under par set by Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in 2016 and set a new lowest 72-hole aggregate at St Andrews, his 268 total bettering Tiger Woods’ 269 in 2000.
Smith is the fifth Australian to win The Open, following in the footsteps of Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch and only the third to do so at St Andrews, following Thomson (1955) and Nagle in 1960, the 100th anniversary Open. With the win, Smith rose to a career-best No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“To win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career. To do it around St Andrews, I think, is just unbelievable. This place is so cool. I love the golf course. I love the town,” said Smith.