Jeffrey Guan (left) and Joseph Buttress (right) are shadowing Cameron Smith for two weeks as winners of a scholarship program to help aspiring golfers learn what it is like to be an elite pro. Supplied
The first major championship in Los Angeles in almost 30 years is bound to attract a host of Hollywood actors, athletes, musicians and other celebrities in the galleries at LA Country Club. Among the 22,000 spectators anticipated for Thursday’s first round at the US Open, however, will be two teenagers from Australia you’ve never heard of: promising amateur golfers Joseph Buttress and Jeffrey Guan.
Buttress, 17, and Guan, 18, are guests of reigning Open champion Cameron Smith, having won the Australian star’s annual scholarship. The programme, created in 2016, sees Smith fly two amateurs over for a week during which they stay with him to learn how the former PGA Tour star-turned LIV golfer navigates the daily duties of elite pro golf. They usually attend a tournament with him, and this was the first time Smith had taken the winners to a major.
Those duties took an interesting turn when Buttress and Guan landed on Tuesday last week. It was the same day news of the PGA Tour entering a framework deal with LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) rocked the golf world.
Smith, who won three PGA Tour events last year including its flagship Players Championship and the Open Championship at St Andrews before leaving for LIV Golf, was as surprised as any golf fan when the news broke. He was on a golf course in the Jacksonville area.
“I guess my first reaction was I thought it was kind of a joke that had come out,” Smith said with a laugh in his pre-tournament press conference at the US Open. Smith recalled how he fielded a call from Yasir al-Rumayyan that Tuesday, shortly before the chairman of the PIF and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan appeared on a pre-recorded CNBC interview.
“[He] explained what was going on,” said Smith who is among LIV’s top stars including fellow franchise captains Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. “He was calling a few different players; it was kind of short and sweet. He didn’t really explain too much. I think there’s still a lot of stuff to be worked out, and as time goes on, we’ll get to know more.”
Once Smith processed the news, it was back to hosting Buttress and Guan. Buttress is a rising star from Perth, while Guan won the Junior Players Championship by four shots at TPC Sawgrass six months after Smith claimed the PGA Tour’s namesake there.
Smith, 29, gave the two teens short-game lessons and gym sessions at his Florida home and played rounds of golf with them in the Jacksonville area. He then took the duo on a NetJets private flight to Los Angeles for the US Open.
“It’s been so cool to watch how dedicated Cam is to his game. From the gym sessions to practice, it’s easy to see why he’s one of the best in the world,” Buttress said. Added Guan: “It’s pretty inspiring and reminds us we have so much to work on. Cam is so world-class in every area of his game.”
On Monday, Buttress and Guan watched from the front row as Smith handled questions from media, many about the merger.
“There’s definitely a lot of curious players, I think, on both sides as to what the future is going to look like,” Smith said. “I really know as much as you guys [media] know, to be honest. I haven’t been told much at all. It’s going to be interesting to see how the next few months, maybe even year, plays out. For the moment I’m just trying to win a US Open.”
Smith was pressed on whether he would welcome a hypothetical return to the PGA Tour, if LIV were to fold. Some predict it will be absorbed by the new for-profit entity of which al-Rumayyan will be the chairman and Monahan the CEO.
“That’s another pretty hypothetical question,” he said. “I’m unable to answer that one.”
There were some laughs in the press gallery, too, especially when Smith was blindsided by a question about the difference between the USGA, organiser of the US Open, and the R&A, organiser of the Open Championship.
“Geez, that’s a good question … I guess, the USGA is in the US and the R&A is in the UK,” Smith said.
He was also quizzed about what, if anything, makes him nervous on or off the golf course. The question had an inference to his composure during the back nine at St Andrews last year, when he shot 30 to ice his Open victory.
“Being offshore [tens of miles out to sea] in a boat and the motor going out [failing] makes me nervous,” Smith, a keen fisherman, said. “On the golf course, I definitely have a little bit of a nervy feeling on the first tee at every tournament, and then the last day with a lead probably makes me a little bit nervous, as well.”
Smith then walked out of his US. Open press conference and greeted Buttress and Guan, who had just walked a seven-hole practice round with him. In one eventful day, the scholarship winners saw every facet of elite pro golf.