MELBOURNE – British Open champion Cameron Smith is savouring a warm homecoming on his long-awaited return to Australia where his participation in the Saudi-backed LIV series has done little to dent his popularity.
Back home after three Covid-interrupted years, Smith was given the keys to the city in his native Brisbane on Tuesday, becoming the first golfer among 52 people to receive the honour.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d get the keys to the city,” the mullet-haired 29-year-old said. “I thought it was for important people, not golfers.”
Australia’s strict Covid-19 quarantine and border controls were in place until late-2021, delaying Smith and other top local golfers from returning home earlier.
Though Smith battled homesickness, the time away proved a blessing in disguise as he spent his off-season in the United States getting fit in the gym ahead of the most fruitful year of his career in 2022.
Coming home a Major winner has made his return even sweeter, with plenty of beers and tears at family gatherings.
Like former world No. 1 Adam Scott, who brought the Masters trophy home after becoming Australia’s first winner of the Major in 2013, Smith has brought the Claret Jug with him.
Smith’s career was yet to take off when he joined a line “about a K (kilometre) long” to get an autograph from Scott in the lead-up to the 2013 Australian PGA Championship at Royal Pines on the Gold Coast.
“He had the green jacket on down at Royal Pines,” said Smith. “That was pretty cool to see.”
Nine years later, the pair will tee off at the same tournament at Royal Queensland on Thursday, with Smith, who won the title back-to-back in 2017-18, now the headline act. Scott, the 2013 and 2019 winner, will also be bidding for a third title at the event.
Smith was overwhelmed by the joy and emotion from compatriots when he showed off the Claret Jug, posing for selfies with fans with the trophy at Brisbane airport right after touching down.
“It’s insane. It’s like they’ve seen a ghost the first time they’ve seen it,” he added. “I don’t want to give it back. I want to keep hanging onto it.”
Though the reception from fans has been warm, Smith’s decision to sign with LIV for a reported US$150 million (S$207 million) a few months ago was criticised by some Australian media pundits and former players.
Like other LIV players, Smith, who is close friends with LIV Golf chief Greg Norman, is now barred from competing on the major US PGA and European DP World Tours.
The Australian Tour, however, has welcomed Smith to play local events. Australia will host a LIV event in April in Adelaide, with the South Australia state government throwing its weight behind it.
Separately, veteran caddie Steve Williams is coming out of retirement to reunite with Scott.
The Kiwi, who caddied for Tiger Woods for 13 of his 15 Majors, will be on Scott’s bag for the Australian PGA Championship and next week’s Australian Open. Scott said Williams will then share the role in 2023 with regular caddie Greg Hearmon.
“It’s exciting to work again with Steve and see if we can rediscover the magic,” Scott, 42, told Golf Digest. He is winless in 2022 but has three top-10 finishes in his past five worldwide starts.
Williams first worked as Scott’s caddie in 2011 after the former was fired by Woods. He was on the bag for Scott’s 2013 Masters title and when Scott ascended to No. 1 the following year. The two parted ways in 2017.
“I’ve always said to Adam and to others, to be remembered as one of the great players, you have to win multiple Majors,” Williams told Golf Digest. “The opportunity to try and get Adam major No. 2 and elevate himself to a special group of players in history would be a privilege.” REUTERS