Cameron Smith wins The Players with big putts and gutsy shot

Players Championship Golf
Cameron Smith, of Australia, holds the trophy after winning The Players Championship golf tournament Monday, March 14, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Cameron Smith was unflappable as ever on a TPC Sawgrass stage that causes so much anxiety.

Through 13 holes in the final round at The Players Championship, Smith had only one par. With a two-stroke lead on the par-3 17th hole and staring at an island, he delivered the boldest shot of his career. When he punched out from under the trees into the water on the closing hole, he never panicked.

Only after the 28-year-old Australian capped off a long week with the biggest win of his career did he lose control of his emotions.

This was more about family than his $3.6 million prize, his three-year exemption to the majors and his five-year exemption on the PGA Tour.

Waiting for him off the 18th green were his mother Sharon and his sister Melanie, whom he had not seen in more than two years because of travel restrictions Down Under from the pandemic. They arrived a week before The Players Championship to see Smith in his adopted hometown of Ponte Vedra Beach.

And then he gave them the best treat of all.

“I haven’t seen them in two years. It’s really cool to have them here,” Smith said, his voice choking slightly. “My main priority really was just to hang out with them and golf was second for these few weeks. It’s nice to see them and nice to get a win for them.”

It was quite the joy ride, a dynamic conclusion to the longest week at The Players Championship filled with five days of bad weather and, ultimately, the high drama the Stadium Course typically delivers.

Smith one-putted eight of his last nine holes, including a birdie on the par-3 17th and a 3-foot bogey putt after hitting into the water on the 18th. That gave him a 6-under 66 for a one-shot victory over Anirban Lahiri of India.

Leading by two on the 17th, 135 yards to the hole on an island green, Smith split the difference in the 12 feet that separated the flag from the water. The ball ended up 4 feet away and he made his record-tying 10th birdie of the round.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t push it a little bit,” Smith said. “I was trying to hit it over the bunker there and hold it up against the wind. The wind didn’t really do much for maybe three quarters of the shot, and it held it up right there at the end. That was just awesome.”

Turns out he needed that final birdie.

Smith punched out from the pine straw right of the 18th fairway all the way into the water. After a penalty drop, his 60-yard wedge spun next to the hole to 3 feet for a bogey.

Lahiri, who started the final round with a one-shot lead, birdied the 17th and needed one more to force a playoff. He came up short of the green, and his pitch was below the cup all the way. He closed with a 69.

Paul Casey shot 69 and was the victim of a horrible break on the 16th hole when he was in position to edge closer to the lead.

Smith, who finished at 13-under 275, won for the second time this year, and the fifth time in his PGA Tour career, and picked up $3.6 million from the $20 million purse, the richest in golf. He moved to No. 6 in the world.

Lahiri’s only big mistake was a tee shot into a palmetto bush on the par-3 eighth, forcing him to take a drop near the concession area that led to double bogey. It was the only shot he dropped all day, and his best finish on the PGA Tour came with a $2.18 million consolation prize.

“I’ve been here seven years; haven’t gotten over the line yet. That’s definitely a monkey I want to get off my back,” Lahiri said. “Today was as good an opportunity as any. I gave it a good go. Made some mistakes today that I could have avoided, but that’s golf.”

Casey, meanwhile, was the victim of bad luck. He was two shots behind and in the same group as Smith when he looked to have a big advantage on the par-5 16th. Smith duck-hooked his tee shot into the pines. Casey drilled his drive down the middle. But the ball took one last roll in the rain-soaked fairway, right into another player’s pitch mark.

Instead of a mid-iron into the par 5, he had to punch it out short. Then, he was inches away from getting relief from a sprinkler head near the green and had to scramble for par. Smith punched out to the fairway and matched the par.

“You need a little bit of luck sometimes, don’t you? That wasn’t very good luck, was it?” said Casey, who contemplated going for the green until realizing he could throw away whatever chance he had left if the shot came out badly.

“It’s a shame. It was the best drive I hit all day,” he said.

So concluded a week like no other on the TPC Sawgrass, where so much rain early in the week meant the first round lasted 54 hours and 16 minutes, finishing on Saturday morning. The wind that followed wreaked havoc on half the field. The bone-chilling temperatures Sunday made it tough on everyone. It was the first Monday finish since 2005 at The Players.

Smith made it memorable for so many other reasons.

Kevin Kisner birdied three of his last four holes for a 68 to finish alone in fourth.

Keegan Bradley was among four players who had a chance over the last hour. He was one shot behind after a birdie on the 16th, only to three-putt the 17th from the front of the green to a back pin, and then took double bogey on the 18th when his punch shot from the trees came out hot and ended up in the water. He shot 68 and finished fifth.

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