Cameron Smith sizzles, wins THE PLAYERS Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Cameron Smith made the longest week at THE PLAYERS Championship worth the wait.

In a dynamic conclusion to five days of bad weather and high drama, Smith one-putted eight of his last nine holes with his pure stroke and delivered one of the gutsiest shots of his career for the cushion he needed to win.

Leading by two on the par-3 17th hole, 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 the Australian made his record-tying 10th birdie of the round.

Turns out he needed it. 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 and a 6-under 66, giving him a one-shot victory over Anirban Lahiri of India. 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 earned a staggering 600 FedExCup points.

This was about more than money, more than the three-year exemption he earned to the four majors and a five-year exemption on the PGA TOUR. This was as much about family. Smith, so unflappable in the tense pressure that featured 26 holes on Monday, choked up when he talked about his mother and sister, whom he had not seen more than two years because of travel restrictions Down Under during the pandemic.

Smith makes his home down the road in Jacksonville Beach, and he happily went to the airport this week for a special reunion. They watched him capture the crown jewel of the PGA TOUR.

“It’s really cool to have them here,” Smith said. “My main priority was to hang out with them. Golf was second. It’s nice to see them and nice to get a win for them.”

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.

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. They headed to the 17th, where Smith’s 9-iron was bolder than he wanted.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t push it a little bit,” he said. No matter. He got the birdie, got the win and moved to No. 6 in the world. 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. Kisner is famous for once saying 20th place pays pretty good. So does fourth place at the TOUR’s premier event. He earned $980,000.

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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