By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Cameron Smith is a household name in Australia, particularly along the east coast and its three most inhabited states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Those three states make up about 78% of the country’s population.
Bring up Cameron Smith in any of those states and gums will start flapping. Some adore Cameron Smith. Some have an aversion bordering on hatred. Some might not love him but certainly respect him. Just about all have an opinion on Cameron Smith.
We’re not talking about the Cameron Smith who defends his Sony Open in Hawaii title this week. Nor the Cameron Smith who finished second in last year’s Masters after becoming the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at Augusta National. That Cameron Smith might be the most underappreciated athlete in Australia. But – quite frankly – he doesn’t care about that.
It is another Cameron Smith who dominates the Australian sporting consciousness. (Australian readers bear with us a moment while we explain to the rest.) Cameron Smith is arguably the greatest rugby league player who ever lived. The National Rugby league (NRL) star is 10 years older than the golfer. The younger Smith spent his childhood idolizing the man.
“It’s just cool. It’s like having Superman as your name basically. Everyone knows how good he is,” says Smith, the golfer. “As a kid to have the same name it just makes you feel like you are kind of like him. So, it was fun for me to see his success and it makes you believe you can achieve great things to.”
The similarities go much deeper than a name.
Both grew up in the Brisbane suburbs as part of working-class families. Both have a love of rugby league and golf, following their dads around golf courses from a young age. Both crave a “normal” life and prefer to point the spotlight in a different direction, despite their impressive accomplishments. Both have a steely determination to prove themselves after having their abilities questioned. And both were forced to leave the comfort of their cultural surrounds to become great.
Smith, the rugby league player, is pretty fond of Smith, the golfer, these days as well. An avid recreational golfer, Smith, the rugby league player, keeps up with the Aussies on TOUR – particularly his fellow Queenslander who shares the same name. The two met a few years back and instantly hit it off.
“I first heard of Cam when he came on TOUR as a young fella a few years back,” Smith, the rugby league player, told PGATOUR.COM. “Smith and Cameron are quite common names but of course it stood out, and to share the name and be pretty much from the same town – we grew up 30-40 kilometers apart from each other – that was pretty remarkable.”
“Ever since he started on the PGA TOUR, I have been following his progress. When I got to meet him, I found him to be a very laid-back type of fella. A typical Queensland kid who loves his sport. Of course, we got on.”
On that occasion the pair hit a few shots on the range for local news cameras and passed the football around. The occasion drew Smith, the golfer, out of his shell. He displayed the cheeky personality that isn’t often on display in public. Smith, the rugby league player, says he can understand why the golfer may seem quiet and shy to his PGA TOUR peers. Leaving Queensland can be a shock.
Those from Australia’s northeastern state find joy in simple pleasures and enduring friendships. They’re not enticed by bright lights and fame. And there is most definitely an underdog spirit.
New South Wales has Sydney. Victoria has Melbourne. Those two cities are Australia’s equivalent of New York and Los Angeles. Queensland has Brisbane, which can be compared to Birmingham, Alabama, a big, friendly country town (but with Hawaii style beaches).
“The first couple of years being away from home were the most difficult of my career,” says Smith, the rugby league player, who played rugby league in Melbourne, traditionally an Australian Rules Football town that became an expansion NRL franchise in 1998.
“Making the move, it’s a shock to the system. And my move wasn’t as significant as Cam’s was. I was only moving two states away, but it was like another world.
“The way people dress and talk and the way they interact is very different to Queensland. The lifestyle is very different, and it takes time to adjust to that and you probably don’t offer your full self to other people because you are trying to fit in a little bit to the people around you rather than being yourself and being a bit of an outcast. I’d imagine it’s similar for Cam in the U.S.”
There’s no doubt Smith, the golfer, would live in Queensland if not for the transcontinental commute. In his spare time, he’d hang with his mates at the pub, race cars, go fishing and hunt for the best coffee in town. But it’s hard enough to take on the best golfers in the world without adding 15-hour flights to the mix. So, he lives in Ponte Vedra, Florida, instead.
His friendship circle is small, but tight. You often see Smith, the golfer, with fellow Australians and New Zealanders, like his caddie Sam Pinfold, or the odd European like Jonas Blixt with whom he paired up with to win his first TOUR title at the 2017 Zurich Classic of New Orleans. One of his best mates from home moved to Ponte Vedra to be a personal assistant of sorts.
Smith, the golfer, does have a long-term girlfriend who is American, and many friends who are American. But he opens up quicker to those who understand his self-deprecating and stinging humor and who aren’t looking for too much attention.
Smith is a throwback, a millennial straight out of the 1970s. Hence the mullet he started growing after he saw National Rugby league players growing similar ones last year.
“Queenslanders, and most Australians, are pretty good at bringing people back down to earth if you get a little bit full yourself,” Smith, the golfer, says.
Smith doesn’t need to be reined in. No matter how many zeros get added to his bank account – he won $2.4 million on the course last season, not including the bonus for finishing 24th in the FedExCup — he remains the same knockabout bloke from Brisbane. This Christmas, he paid off his father’s mortgage as an expression of gratitude.
“He knows where he’s come from and appreciates everything that was given to him and appreciates everything he gets,” said Cameron’s father, Des.
Des, a scratch golfer, introduced his son to the game at a young age. He was in the printing business, which meant his shift was over when school let out. Smith beat his dad for the first time when he was 12 but Des says he knew from age 6 the boy could be a professional. “He flushed every shot,” his father remembers. But Des didn’t force the issue, except suggesting he might want to give up the contact sport of rugby league. He did, but he still is a fan of the sport. His dog, Walter, is named after another Queensland rugby league idol, Wally Lewis.
“He used to like the attack (offense) part of rugby league but let’s just say he was a bit of a grabber in defense. He didn’t use his shoulder much,” Des chuckles. “So I told him it might be time to choose golf or league because the way you’re defending you’re likely to get hurt.”
Smith, the rugby league player, says Des and his wife deserve a lot of credit for the man they’ve raised.
“Queensland attitudes, it’s part of upbringing to be honest. You learn that from your parents,” Smith, the rugby league player, says. “It’s just all about humility and while I don’t have anything against people self-promoting and enjoying their success, because we all have to enjoy our success, we just do it in different ways.”
There is one significant difference between the two Smiths. The rugby league player, trains harder than most. Smith, the golfer, knows that’s a place he can sometimes get slack.
“I feel like I have a really good understanding on golf, but I wish I did sometimes work a little harder than I do,” he admits. “I don’t get lazy. I just get content sometimes. I’d rather be out doing something with my mates than pounding balls on the range.”
Smith, the golfer, knew as a 12-year-old he might not emulate his namesake in rugby league, but he figured he might be able to do something decent with a club and dimpled ball. And where he could emulate his hero was in attitude. Both Smiths have a knack for producing their best when the chips are down. It’s another Queensland thing apparently.
State of Origin is one of the biggest events on the Australian sporting calendar. It’s a three-match rugby league series pitting Queensland against New South Wales. It’s as fierce a rivalry as you’ll find anywhere in world sport and pits club teammates against one another. Imagine if NFL players from Georgia and Tennessee returned to their state to play for state pride. Or the best of Texas took on one of their rival states.
Smith, the rugby league player, was part of an incredible era when Queensland won eight series in a row, and 11 of 12. He was captain for a large chunk of it. Even before Smith’s time, the Queensland Maroons Origin team would often win games against the odds. And they had an uncanny ability to come from behind late in matches to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat. They just never give up.
As Smith, the golfer, came through the Australian junior system the spotlight fell towards the likes of Oliver Goss and Brady Watt. Goss was runner up in the 2013 U.S. Amateur and was the low amateur at the 2014 Masters. Watt reached No. 1 in the world amateur rankings. It helped fuel Smith’s underdog mentality.
When he qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open (by making four birdies in his last six holes at sectionals), Smith was determined to prove his worth. While Jordan Spieth was winning his second straight major, Smith was making his own splash. Knowing he needed to eagle the final hole to secure his future, Smith’s final approach shot at Chambers Bay was a cracking 3-wood that set up a tap-in eagle and ensured a T4 finish. It gave him temporary membership on the PGA TOUR. He’s been there since.
And he’s proven clutch on multiple occasions since. He was three down to Justin Thomas in the 2019 Presidents Cup singles before rallying to win. He was out of position multiple times at the recent Masters but created brilliant short game shots to stay in the mix. And a year ago, he was 4 over at the Sony Open after just two holes but managed to rebound all the way to victory.
“Watching those Queensland boys on TV in Origin for me is inspiring,” Smith, the golfer, says. “Just watching them smash the Blues and be willing to do anything to win despite always being the underdog team. To give every ounce for their mates – seemingly outside their ability… and most of the time they just find a way to win. It’s inspiring to me to just try and be like that.”
His namesake in rugby league can be compared to quarterback Tom Brady for the success he’s had over the past two decades. The accolades attached to Smith, the rugby league player, who is now 37, are endless. Among them are records for the most games played and points scored, multiple MVP equivalent awards and numerous matches for his state and country.
Despite all of this Smith, the rugby league player, is now the one being inspired. He thoroughly enjoyed Smith’s efforts in the Masters and will be watching intently as he defends his Sony Open title.
“Cam certainly has all the attributes to be No. 1 in the world somewhere down the track. His golf skills are there for all to see but he’s also got the right temperament,” Smith, the rugby league player, says. “All the great players and athletes no matter what sport it is have the temperament to come up with the right options, and with the big plays when they need them because they don’t get overawed. He’s that type of personality.”