AUGUSTA, Ga. – Cameron Smith returned to the Masters on Monday with a small measure of trepidation, an unusual feeling for someone who has contended two of the last three years and who refers to Augusta National as his “happy place.”
Smith is with LIV Golf, the last big name to defect to the Saudi-funded tour. And having heard so much noise and sensed so much acrimony, he didn't know what kind of reception he would receive when he walked onto the range.
To his relief, it was the usual dose of hugs and handshakes.
“And it was nice,” Smith said to the largest gathering of the day in the interview room.
The British Open champion was the only LIV golfer on the interview schedule, a courtesy Augusta National affords all the reigning major champions regardless of where they play.
What was he expecting?
“I wasn't really sure, to be honest,” Smith said. “I was just kind of letting it all happen naturally — went out to the range and did my stuff and yeah, it was just a really nice experience. ... I think there's a lot of stuff going on at the moment that doesn’t need to be going on, especially in the media. I think it’s definitely wound up a little bit too much.”
This Masters has a full plate of activity, and LIV Golf would appear to be the main course.
Smith has not competed against the best of the PGA Tour since the Tour Championship last August. For the likes of Dustin Johnson, it's been a little longer.
It didn't take long for the mix of players from two tours to cause a stir. The practice round tee sheet listed a most tantalizing foursome of Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Tom Kim and Bryson DeChambeau, who complained only last week that Woods had cut him off ever since the former U.S. Open champion went to LIV.
Turns out it was a Masters mix-up. The fourth was Rory McIlroy, the loudest PGA Tour supporter over the last year.
Couples has made his thoughts clear, recently saying at a PGA Tour Champions breakfast that Phil Mickelson was a “nut bag” and Sergio Garcia a “clown."
Couples, the 1992 Masters champion and still immensely popular, says he has no personal beef with either and would have no trouble sitting with them at the Masters Club dinner on Tuesday night or playing in the same group.
"I have no problem with any of them," Couples said. “Just please do not bash a tour that I have 43 years invested in. It bothers the hell out of me. They don’t bother me. They really don’t. They’re golfers. I’m a golfer. I respect them all.”
The Masters typically releases tee times on Tuesday afternoon, and that has become an event to see which LIV players — 18 of them are at the Masters — will be in the same group as PGA Tour loyalists.
Shane Lowry played with two LIV golfers — Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen — at the U.S. Open last summer. Adam Scott played with Johnson and Marc Leishman at St. Andrews.
“Look, obviously there's going to be some pairings that are going to be interesting this week,” Lowry said. “I always say this about professional golfers. We all work in the same office. If you work in the same office, you're not going to like everyone in there. Same way as this. I met Dustin on the range — I always get on well with Dustin. It was good to see him.”
“There's a lot to hype,” Lowry said. “But if you're paired with whoever, you don't really care about what they're doing. You're just trying to win the tournament.”
One question about LIV golfers is how much they’re playing, as the new circuit has had only three events in 2023. Smith played five times going into the Masters last year, and he briefly challenged Scottie Scheffler until the Texan pulled away to win his first major.
This year he has played four times — the only 72-hole event was the Saudi International on the Asian Tour, where he missed the cut. That was followed by three 54-hole LIV events, the last two finishing out of the top 20.
Smith is not in peak form, which he attributes to a long break at home in Australia during the offseason. But Augusta National tends to bring out the best in him, and he's hoping the good vibes will lead to a great performance.
If not him, then Smith would love to see another LIV player with a shot at the green jacket.
“I think it's just important for LIV guys to be up there because I think we need to be up there,” Smith said. "I think there’s a lot of chatter about these guys don’t play real golf, these guys don’t play real golf courses. For sure, I’ll be the first one to say, the fields aren’t as strong. I’m the first one to say that.
“But we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf, and we compete against each other hard week-in and week-out and we’re trying to do the same things that we did six months ago.”
Brooks Koepka is coming off a one-shot victory last week in LIV Golf-Orlando, where the greens were crusty and brown and fast. It was played on the Crooked Cat course at Orange County National, where the PGA Tour used to stage Q-school.
Johnson was asked about any similarities between Crooked Cat and Augusta National.
“I don't think you could have those in the same sentence, other than I played there last week and I'm playing here this week,” Johnson said.
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports