By John Huggan
It was, in football parlance, the classic “game of two halves.” Three-shots clear of compatriot Marc Leishman with 18 holes to play in his bid to retain the Australian PGA Championship, Cameron Smith was, after an outward-nine 37, suddenly two strokes to the bad. Nine holes and three birdies after that, however, the 24-year-old was back where he started. Almost. By two shots, Smith’s 16-under 272 aggregate for four circuits of the RACV Royal Pines resort in his home state of Queensland, after finishing off a Sunday 70, was good enough to clinch the title and the €160,668 first-place check.
“I was expecting Leish to come out and give it a good crack today,” said the now two-time champion of his teammate in last week’s World Cup of Golf. “It’s always hard going up against a mate and trying to win a golf tournament. I’ve been in this situation before and I’ve had it happen to me as well. I’m sure we’ll have a beer over Christmas or when I see him next and we’ll be back to being mates.”
The turning points came late in the proceedings. Tied with four holes to play, Smith got up-and-down from the 16th tee—after receiving a free drop from signage that offered a more advantageous angle into the flag—to birdie the long 15th and re-claim the lead. And when Leishman dropped his second shot in three holes on the short 16th, the destination of the Joe Kirkwood Cup was all but decided.
“I’ve always said to [wife] Audrey, if I have a bad day, just give me 10 minutes after the round and I’ll be good,” said Leishman, the clearly disappointed runner-up. “This one might take 20. I think Cam made birdies when he had to so all credit to him. I gave it a run there and made it pretty interesting. I had chances, and I actually hit a few pretty good putts. I hit a really good putt on 15 I thought was in and didn’t go in. But I gave it my best crack and couldn’t quite get over the line. That’s golf sometimes.”
Still, the best golf of the final day was not played by either of the two main protagonists. That honor must go to Ross McGowan. Something of a forgotten man in European golf—he came close to making the 2010 Ryder Cup side but has since found it difficult even to maintain a tour card—the 36-year-old Englishman made nine birdies in a bogey-free 63 that hauled him up to 11 under par for the week and into a third-place tie alongside Australian Matthew Millar. Quite a contrast for someone who only just made the cut and played the third round on his own at the foot of the field.
Lower down the leader board, Jake McLeod’s seemingly innocuous closing round of 74 that saw him pull up in a tie for 19th place had much wider implications for the 24-year-old Australian. As a reward for topping the ISPS Handa PGA Tour of Australasia Order of Merit, McLeod, who recently followed up victory in the New South Wales Open with a third-place finish in the Australian Open, is exempt for the rest of the 2018-’19 European Tour season, as well as gaining entry to two World Golf Championship events.
“I’ve got a few mates going to Europe next year on holiday, so they’ll have to venture over to wherever I am,” said a delighted McLeod, whose winnings of A$255,326 was A$19,085 better than Millar.