Cameron Smith, the No. 2 ranked golfer in the world, won’t be in Delaware at this coming weekend’s penultimate PGA Tour event, because of what his agent called “hip discomfort.” If one believes the reports swirling about Smith’s pending jump to LIV Golf, this withdrawal might only be the prologue to a more permanent absence from the tour where Smith became a star.
Those reports began with an article in The Telegraph ahead of this past weekend’s tournament in Memphis, which said Smith would be getting $100 million to jump ship after the PGA season climaxed at the end of August. Smith’s no-comment to the report led fans to believe that, when he was done competing for the PGA’s biggest run of payouts, he’d be out the door for an even larger sum. While at least one LIV golfer in Phil Mickelson and possibly a few more in Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau have provided the Saudi-backed upstart tour with more recognizable names to advertise, Smith’s defection would be LIV’s biggest yet in terms of actual present-day golfing ability. The 28-year-old Australian reached new heights in 2022, winning the big-money Players Championship and then taking his first major victory at St Andrews in July. He would be by far the toughest LIV entrant yet to dismiss as a past-his-peak player seeking an early semi-retirement.
LIV as a product still mostly exists in the abstract—people talk about it and debate it and turn it into a culture war thing but few are actually watching its events—so this move would be less Smith deciding to ply his trade elsewhere and more him chasing a bunch of cash into a vacuum. But it would still be a PR disaster for the PGA Tour if Smith were to come out on the top after what’s marketed as the crowning moment of the season, the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and then immediately descend into the money pit. The PGA still has its history, and a sense that the guys on the tour are actually incentivized to compete as hard as they can, but the loss of a world-class player like Smith would dent its standing as the home of the best and toughest collection of golfers and golf tournaments in the world, which is crucial as long as it’s at a financial disadvantage. No single player not named Tiger would really cause the balance of attention to shift, but Smith changes the competitive calculus a bit.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the relationship between Smith and the PGA Tour has been a little weird since the report of his switch and his subsequent non-denial. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler earned props from the PGA loyalist crowd when he walked in front of Smith’s putting line on Thursday, though he later claimed it was just a mistake, but the most controversial moment of the weekend came on Sunday morning ahead of the final round in the FedEx St. Jude Championship. Smith arrived at the course just two strokes off the lead, and the betting favorite to win it, but before he teed off, he had a conversation with PGA Tour chief referee Gary Young in which he admitted to hitting a ball that was resting on the edge of a red penalty line after taking a drop, all the way back on the fourth hole on Saturday. Smith’s misunderstanding of the rule—the ball has to leave the area completely on a drop—and the PGA’s delayed realization of this violation meant that Smith had to take a two-shot penalty about 18 hours after his last round ended. Smith went on to shoot 70 and finish tied for 13th.
Even if it was not their intent, the PGA Tour’s belated punishment created a situation that could easily be interpreted as the powers that be trying to undermine Smith’s psyche just before his pursuit of a win that would embarrass the Tour. A similarly conspiratorial mindset could lead one to read some passive-aggression into Smith withdrawing from next weekend’s tourney—a message that he no longer needs even the richest PGA purses. I don’t particularly believe in either of these interpretations, but the LIV incursion has tinged even innocuous, normal golf things with paranoia.
If Smith does indeed leave the PGA after an emphatic performance at the Tour Championship, it’ll be a gaudy feather in the cap of LIV. But the even bigger challenge to the PGA Tour is on the distant horizon, looming in the majors that PGA and LIV golfers will play in together. For now, the PGA can still claim to its players that a move to the glorified exhibitions of LIV is a step down in competition which could harm a golfer’s ability to win the majors. Maybe Smith’s level of play drops next year and reinforces that belief. But what if he puts up a repeat performance of his Open win, or claims victory anywhere else? The PGA should be safe as long as its players, ostensibly the best golfers in the world, keep their grip on the majors. Cam Smith is the biggest threat yet to loosen it.