Cam Smith says Southern Hills has raced to the top of his favourite Major venues outside of Augusta National after shooting himself into PGA Championship contention with a red-hot performance from tee to green.
Smith fought back after a sloppy start to the opening round to post a 68, and at two-under-par he sits just three shots behind clubhouse leader Rory McIlroy (65). Smith’s playing partner Will Zalatoris (66) and Tom Hoge (66) are one shot behind McIlroy at four under.
World No.4 Smith said he instantly fell in love with the layout at Southern Hills, a golden age design in Tulsa, Oklahoma which shares similarities with a Melbourne Sandbelt course courtesy of several shared fairway bunkers, wide open fairways and boldly-sloped greens.
“It’s my favourite Major championship course we’ve played so far outside of Augusta National,” Smith told New Zealand Golf Digest after his round. “I just love the way it makes you think backwards from the green to the tee shot.”
Starting from the 10th hole, Smith dropped two shots on his opening nine before storming back up the leaderboard on his closing nine. “Then I had a mental reset; I just had a drink of water and basically told myself, let’s start over.”
It worked because the 28-year-old rattled off three straight birdies from the first hole before adding two more and a bogey to lock up a strong start to the year’s second Major.
“It’s nice to get through (a challenge) early in the week; it was definitely one of those rounds that could have got away from me quite quickly. Another couple over on (my) back nine, I’m probably out of the golf tournament. So it was nice to rally.”
Smith also revealed to New Zealand Golf Digest his driving had turned a corner. Smith spent a week testing and fine-tuning his driver at home in preparation for the PGA Championship, which usually favours the big hitters.
Wayward tee shots were what cost Smith a chance at a Masters victory last month, where he finished tied for third. On Thursday at the PGA, he hit an impressive 11 of 14 fairways, which freed up his irons and Smith ranked No.1 in the field for approach play.
“Today was the best I’ve felt with driver for a very long time,” Smith said. “I did a lot of work with it last week because I knew the PGA Championship is always a challenge off the tee. I changed shafts and found out a few things about my setup. I added loft to my driver. Even though I’ve lost 3 or 4 metres of carry distance, it’s much straighter. If I can continue to drive it like today, that’ll be key to having a chance on Sunday.”
Cam Davis (72) and Matt Jones (73) were the other Australians in the morning wave. In the afternoon groups, Jason Day (71) was one over, Marc Leishman (72) was two over and Min Woo Lee (73) was three over. Adam Scott (77) was seven over.
Kiwi Ryan Fox (70) was even par.