Cameron Smith has the chance to free himself from the shackles of his Masters disappointment when he tees it up at this year’s second major, the PGA Championship, on Thursday (11pm AEST).
The 28-year-old has laid relatively low since a Sunday fade-out at Augusta saw world No.1 Scottie Scheffler cruise to the green jacket.
Smith had pulled himself to within one shot of Scheffler early in the final round, but slipped away, before a devastating triple bogey at the 12th put the final nail in the coffin.
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Smith played at the RBC Heritage the following week but had a clear Masters hangover, firing one-over across the first two rounds to miss only his second cut of the season.
The only other tournament the Australian has played since the Masters was the Zurich Classic team event, which he won alongside Marc Leishman last year.
They finished in a tie for 21st.
As such, Smith flies into this week’s PGA Championship a little under the radar for someone now ranked fourth in the world.
Smith reached a career high in March when he won golf’s star-studded ‘fifth major’, the Players Championship, at TPC Sawgrass to truly announce himself as one of the world’s leading players.
That he then contended deep into the Masters just weeks later should have only added to his credentials. Yet his fade-out – particularly his wet tee shot on 12 – is the memory that has stuck for many.
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Smith fired one of the most nerveless approach shots on Sawgrass’ notorious 17th Island Green to effectively seal the Players Championship, only for a tentative swing while pin-seeking at Augusta’s 12th to take some of the gloss off.
Suddenly, he was criticized for the very same aggressive approach that was winning him fans.
“The cavalier way that he plays the game, the swashbuckling way, is going to leave himself prone and open to a lot of mistakes,” former pro and Golf Channel analyst Paul McGinley said after the Masters.
“Mistakes are part of his fabric and today he made too many of them.
“At this elite level, sometimes it will go your way like at (Sawgrass) but you’re going to crash and burn as well, and he certainly crashed and burned today when he had a chance.”
Within that criticism, Smith’s new reality on the PGA Tour has been laid bare.
There’s a different, harsher set of rules when critiquing the world’s best – and Smith now falls into that category.
He should see it as a complement, although not everyone is made to withstand the heightened pressure.
But the early signs suggest that Smith has the ability to compartmentalize such failures, and push on with no lingering doubts over his talents.
“I would not say I regret anything,” Smith said this week about his doomed shot at the Masters. “I think there are shots that you have to hit to win golf tournaments, and sometimes they just do not work out.
“Frustrated, yes, for a little bit, but definitely no regrets.”
In a separate interview with Australian Golf DigestSmith said he’s feeling mentally refreshed having taken some time away.
“I had a really good couple of weeks off; I had my cousin over from Australia, ”he told the publication. “We hung out, played golf and did some fishing. It was nice to put the mind at rest. ”
Smith hasn’t just kicked up his heels and wet a line, though.
His PGA Championship preparations ramped up with the Queenslander addressing both his swing issues off the tee, while also working with a psychologist.
“So that’s (driving) starting to feel really nice as well. The whole swing is feeling sharp, ”Smith said.
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At the end of the day, only results matter, and Smith will need to bounce back at the majors to prove he has no lingering effects from going close to a green jacket.
Near misses at Augusta regrettably have the ability to define players, such as Greg Norman, or Tom Weiskopf, who was runner-up four times.
It’s far too early to even suggest Smith could walk down a similar route having finished inside the top five three times in the past five Masters.
Nonetheless, the quicker the slate is wiped clean from that Masters disappointment, the better – and the PGA Championship is Smith’s first chance to do so.
The major has historically been unkind to Smith, who is the first to acknowledge that he has underperformed when competing for the Wanamaker Trophy.
“The PGA is probably the one that I’ve struggled with the most,” he said. “It’s typically set up very demanding off the tee. I do not think that’s really been my strong suit out here ever.
“Just more opportunities from the fairway I think is what I need, especially around here. The rough can be pretty penal. ”
The early signs this year, however, are that the tournament may play different to usual and work in favor of the Australian.
PGA Championship courses often set up as a bomber’s paradise, but Southern Hills is set to play firm and fast, while its undulations are reminiscent of Australian sandbelt venues.
Furthermore, the clearing of trees has opened it up off the tee, while heavily contoured greens make Southern Hills more of a second-shot course.
That should play into the hands of Smith, who has struggled with driver, but excelled in every other department this year.
“It’s a great golf course, I’ve only played nine but typically these firm, fast and difficult courses suit a lot of the Aussies,” he told the Australian Golf Digest.
“It feels like maybe something in Sydney with the rolling hills. It’s a very well thought-out course, it’s not a bomber’s paradise. ”
Smith tees off with Viktor Hovland and Will Zalaoris at 11pm Thursday (AEST).