Open champion at St. Andrews in July, the Australian arrived at TPC Southwind in Memphis knowing a win would see him leapfrog Scottie Scheffler to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career.
Two strokes behind overnight leader J.J. Spaun ahead of Sunday’s deciding round, Smith looked well-placed for a run at victory, but his hopes were dealt a heavy blow before he had even teed off when he was called into the rules office to discuss an incident the previous day.
The meeting concerned Smith’s fourth hole of the third round where, after his tee shot had found the water, the Australian had taken a drop. Smith made the best of an awkward lie next to the water to chip onto the green and putt for bogey before continuing with his round, but the proximity of the ball to the red penalty line led officials to investigate the shot on Sunday morning.
“When we came back to the live action we saw him [Smith] playing a shot from down there, it looked like the ball was awfully close to the line,” PGA TOUR Chief Referee Gary Young told NBC Sports.
“But we felt comfortable that the player knew enough that he couldn’t play a ball that was touching the line of the penalty area.”
With the official near the hole at the time not noticing any wrongdoing, Young confirmed the incident was revisited Sunday morning. Upon being summoned to the rules office, Young said that Smith – believing only a portion of the ball needed to be in the play area to be safe – confirmed his ball had been touching the line.
A subsequent two-stroke penalty saw Smith’s score on the hole raised to a triple bogey, dropping him to four shots off the lead. Yet despite the setback, Smith was praised by Young for his sportsmanship.
“Cam is a complete gentleman and he took it that way,” Young said.
“He was completely calm through the whole process and once he found out that it was a 2-stroke penalty he just said to me ‘the rules are the rules.’ In typical casual Cam fashion he just accepted it and left the office that way.”
A final day even-70 saw the Australian end the weekend tied for 13th at nine-under, six shots behind champion Will Zalatoris, who beat Sepp Straka in a playoff to claim his first PGA Tour win.
After shooting 71 on Thursday, Zalatoris roared back with rounds of 63, 65, and 66 to force Austria’s Straka into a sudden-death shootout. Unable to be separated after two plays of the 18th hole, a bogey from Straka at the subsequent 11th saw the American seal his maiden PGA Tour win on his 56th Tour start.
For a tearful Zalatoris, victory marked the emotional end to a string of painful near misses throughout the season. Runner-up at the Farmers Insurance Open, the PGA Championship, and the U.S Open, the 25-year-old’s $6,705,802 earnings marked the highest amount earned in a season without a victory, according to the PGA Tour.
Triumph in Memphis bumps those earnings by another $2.7 million, and sees Zalotoris become the first player since Camilo Villegas in 2008 to lift a FedExCup Playoff event as their first PGA Tour title.
“It’s kind of hard to say ‘about time’ when it’s your second year on Tour, but about time,” Zalatoris told reporters.
“Considering all the close finishes that I’ve had this year, to finally pull it off, it means a lot.”
There were tears of joy from coach Josh Gregory who, supporting Zalatoris in his hometown tournament, celebrated one crucial putt so enthusiastically that he injured himself.
“He jumped up on the side of a hill and I think he pulled his calf or something like that, so I didn’t see him up until I got the trophy,” Zalatoris said.
“He cried like a baby … He’s been there for me through the ups and the downs over the last few years and it’s pretty cool to do it in his hometown and obviously with him here.”