Cameron Smith’s career has been a steady climb towards excellence.
At the end of 2016, Smith was No. 114 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Since then, he has improved his world ranking in four of five calendar years. Following an impressive recent win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, he ascended to No. 10 in the world.
How did the Australian get there? And how does his current game compare to what he had when he was outside the top 100 in the world? Let’s take a look.
Throughout Smith’s career, he has had essentially the same mixture of strengths and weaknesses: below-average driving, mediocre long irons, and an elite short game. He has shown flashes in other skill areas, but he didn’t put multiple pieces of the puzzle together until last year.
In 2021, Smith made more than 90% of his putts between three and six feet, a feat he hadn’t achieved since 2015. He also gained almost 0.6 strokes per round on the greens last year, earning his way into the top 10 in that category.
Smith has always been solid with his wedges, but he took a large step forward in 2021. By average proximity to the hole, he had never ranked inside the top 25 from 100 to 125 yards or from 125 to 150 yards prior to 2021. But in the 2020-21 season, he ranked first in proximity between 100 and 125 yards and eighth between 125 and 150.
The combination of elite putting and improved short-approach play in 2021 propelled Smith to his best season by a wide margin. He gained 1.1 strokes per round on the field, more than 0.6 strokes better than his second-best season.
The Aussie’s primary limiting factor is his driving ability. Year over year, he ranks below average in driving accuracy and right around average in distance. He has lost strokes off the tee every year he has played on the PGA Tour.
Gaining distance yields multiple benefits. Most people focus on the incremental benefit of additional distance (i.e., “How much is five yards worth on the PGA Tour?”). That is a valid way to consider the advantage, but there is another significant benefit to additional length off the tee: optionality.
Consider an NFL quarterback approaching the line of scrimmage. Before snapping the ball, he can analyze the opponent’s defensive scheme. If he deems his original play call unlikely to succeed, he can audible to an alternate play with a higher chance of success. Optionality is valuable.
Similarly, before teeing off, golfers evaluate the risk-reward proposition imposed by the hazards. Longer-hitting players can carry hazards that shorter-hitting players cannot. The big hitter does not have to attempt a carry if he deems it too risky, but the option is at least available to him. Recently, Will Zalatoris has shown that he understands this specific benefit of length. As he told PGATour.com’s Sean Martin, “There’s multiple courses where that extra 12 yards of carry will allow me to hit it over bunkers I was hitting into last year.”
Furthermore, gaining distance off the tee will turn some long-iron approach shots into wedges, which is particularly valuable for an elite wedge player like Cameron Smith.
Smith evidently understands the various advantages of distance. At Kapalua, he explained that, following the RSM Classic in the fall, he made a concerted effort to improve his driving.
Well, it worked. En route to beating a strong field at the driver-heavy Sentry Tournament of Champions, Smith rose to No. 1 in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee. He outdrove his closest rival, Jon Rahm, at a surprisingly high rate. As the table below shows, this has not been the typical dynamic between the two. Smith has rarely outdriven Rahm on holes where both of them used driver off the tee.
Note: The 2022 data strictly refers to 50 holes at the Sentry Tournament of Champions because the two golfers have not overlapped at another event in 2022
Caution is required when interpreting such a small sample size, but look at that jump! Smith hit it past Rahm on half of the occasions where both of them pulled driver. Impressive stuff.
One more telling stat: in the 2021 edition of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Smith made birdie or better on nine of the 16 par 5s. In 2022, he made birdie or better on 14 of the 16 par 5s, including three eagles.
Hitting into the par 5s at Kapalua, Smith had almost 17 fewer yards per approach shot than he did in 2021. And if you’re thinking that maybe this year’s conditions enabled longer drives… first of all, I like the way you think! But that’s not the case. Among all other players who participated in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in both 2021 and 2022, the average was approximately three fewer yards into the par 5s on second shots. Smith bettered that number by 14 yards.
The pursuit of distance is not risk-free. For instance, additional length increases the likelihood of finding hazards. So as Smith gets acclimated to his newfound distance, there may be some volatility in his play. Immediately after winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions, for instance, he missed the cut at the Sony Open, a tournament that does not reward driving distance like the TOC does.
But here’s the thing: on today’s PGA Tour, volatility is fine! Nobody remembers who finished T-14 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic last year. People recognize wins, as do the Official World Golf Ranking and the FedEx Cup.
It will be fascinating to see how Cameron Smith’s game continues to evolve. If he maintains his length off the tee without losing control of the ball, he can contend on any golf course in the world.
Joseph LaMagna is the founder of Optimal Approach Golf, a golf intelligence company working with tour players to improve their performance.