SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — Cam Smith’s 2022 has been transformative.
From the record-setting winning score at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first week of January, to his breakthrough Players Championship win in March, to his historic July victory at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, to his eye-popping decision to join LIV Golf a few weeks ago …
Let’s just say a lot has happened to the 29-year-old Australian since the calendar page turned over.
But, with all the life changes that have accompanied his on-course success, Smith just. Keeps. Playing. Great. Golf.
His 4-under 68 Saturday at a breezy, beastly Rich Harvest Farms layout vaulted him from three behind first-round leader Dustin Johnson to two ahead, standing at 10 under with just 18 holes left in LIV’s fifth event of the summer.
Staring down LIV’s resident Big Man on Campus while playing in his group, giving him five straight LIV rounds in the 60s and a cumulative total of 24 under par since jumping from the PGA Tour?
Considering the year-to-date for the world No. 2, you can’t really be that surprised. At the same time, his unshakeable form remains remarkable.
“Just keeping everything the same, to be honest,” explained the demure Smith in his post-round press conference. “Still doing the work at home and trying to come here and win golf tournaments. My mentality hasn’t changed one bit. I think that’s why I’ve played so well the last couple of weeks.”
Smith’s round alongside DJ and the revitalized Matthew Wolff started in high gear, with three birdies building a 33 on what Smith called a more “gettable” front nine.
But his trip around the lengthy links 50 miles west of Chicago stagnated early on the back nine, with Johnson clinging to a one-shot lead entering the 16th — which actually was the group’s 16th hole, since the leaders get the honor of starting on No. 1 for the last two rounds.
Regardless, it appeared Johnson might stretch his lead on the par-3 16th, with Smith nearly dumping his mid-iron tee ball into a creek to the right and beneath the crowned putting surface. However, the spindly Brisbane native flopped a brilliant recovery to two feet, and DJ made bogey to forge a tie atop the leaderboard.
The water-guarded 480-yard par-4 17th continued the pivotal stretch, as Johnson had to scramble for par out of the greenside rough, while Smith stuffed his fairway iron to six feet for his first birdie in nine holes.
Leading by one entering the reachable par-5 18th, Smith made a routine two-putt birdie to reach double digits under par, while Johnson couldn’t get up and down for his 4 from up against the grandstand.
To see Smith outduel Johnson with most of the eyes on property locked on their group reminded of exactly how the long-locked Aussie has leapt to the top of the golf world this year, leaning nearly equally on steady ball-striking, a deft short game and perhaps the most reliable putting stroke in the sport today.
“He’s definitely one you want to beat for sure,” Smith said of Johnson, who’ll again be his playing partner in ‘final’ threesome Sunday. “He’s been one of the best players for the last 10, 15 years, so he’s someone to go up against and someone to try and beat.”
2010 U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein climbed up the LIV pylon to third place with a Saturday-best score of 6-under 66, no small feat as the late-summer wind whipped across the ample cornfields that border the course.
The former Oklahoma State stud is certainly not one of the stars of LIV — in fact, he might be a candidate for demotion to the Asian Tour should this circuit sign more headliners — but his 7-under total puts him in the group with Smith and Johnson.
“I want to have championship tests,” Uihlein said when asked about the tougher-than-average LIV setups this year. “You don’t really kind of want to have these 25-under-par shootouts. Good, tough courses is kind of what we enjoy playing, so it’s good.”
Additionally, Uihlein and the Brooks Koepka-captained Smash GC team are in third place at 13 under, two back of three-time defending champ Four Aces, who continue to be led by Johnson. Smith’s squad, all-Australian team Punch GC, is second, one behind the Four Aces.
Both Smash and Punch have been also-rans every week in the early iterations of the team competition. Jason Kokrak’s 4-under score joined Uihlein in boosting Smash up the team leaderboard, while the unheralded Matt Jones (4 under for the weekend) has assisted Smith for the Down Under squad.
“It’s nice to be actually competing and have a chance to win the team thing,” said Koepka, who fell to even par on the tourney with a Saturday 74. “I kind of ham and egged it, I guess, the last two days, but (Kokrak and Uihlein) obviously played well.
“Go out tomorrow and play well and see what happens.”
Back on the individual side of things, Englishman Laurie Canter and inaugural LIV winner Charl Schwartzel are tied in fourth at 6 under, with crowd attraction Bryson DeChambeau, Charles Howell III and Lee Westwood knotted at 5 under.
Considering the difficulty of the course — and a Sunday forecast that features more of the same in terms of shifting winds — more players than typical might be in the running to grab the trophy and the $4 million first prize.
“I think tomorrow, if they leave the course be, tomorrow will be really fun,” Smith said with a wry grin. “I think it’s going to be firm and fast, and with these greens the way they are, I think it’ll be quite tricky.”
Care to guess who’s best positioned to handle those tricks? That’d be the guy who keeps on turning in the results, no matter the venue, the continent, or the tour he’s playing.