AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP)Cameron Smith closed his eyes once, closed them twice, then let his 9-iron slip from his right hand.
He knew right away.
Before Smith’s tee shot on the 12th hole during the final round of the Masters splashed into Rae’s Creek – taking the 28-year-old Australian’s hopes of winning his first major along with it – he was already looking away in disgust.
”It was a terrible swing,” Smith said.
One that cost him a chance at putting any pressure on eventual champion Scottie Scheffler down the stretch. An overcooked pitch shot from the penalty area, another blah pitch and two putts later, he tapped in for a triple bogey that dropped him six shots back of Scheffler, turning the final holes into a coronation for Scheffler and a learning experience for his playing partner.
Smith, the world’s sixth-ranked player, posted a 1-over 73 to finish tied for third with Shane Lowry.
”I’ll grow from this and be stronger from it,” he said.
The Brisbane-born Smith said he had hoped the folks back home would wake around 5 a.m. to watch him take aim at tracking down Scheffler. The early returns provided those who tuned in with a noncaffeinated jolt.
Smith birdied each of the first two holes to trim a three-shot deficit to just one. It would be as close as Smith would get. Scheffler chipped in for birdie on the par-4 third while Smith bogeyed from nearly the exact same spot. A bogey at the par-3 fourth dropped Smith four back. He calmly drained a 15-foot birdie on the difficult par-4 11th to move to three shots behind.
The momentum lasted all of five minutes.
The treacherous 12th is where countless hopes of victories at Augusta National have ended up in the bottom of the creek that snakes through the back nine.
Smith’s leaky tee shot that never made it all the way across added him to a list that includes Jordan Spieth in 2016, Greg Norman in 1996 and Francesco Molinari in 2019. Maybe that’s why Smith couldn’t really watch.
Everything was wrong. The swing. The line. The result.
”Wasn’t even trying to go near that pin,” he said.
Clearly rattled, Smith showed a brief flash of anger. He slammed his club into the turf after his pitch onto the 13th green landed well left of the hole, leading to a par when he desperately needed a birdie.
His tee shot on the 14th went into the trees on the left, leading to a bogey. In the span of 20 minutes, what looked potentially doable quickly morphed first to doubtful, then impossible.
While Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa were up ahead splashing in birdies from the greenside bunker at the 18th to leapfrog Smith on the leaderboard, he was bending his driver across his shoulders in frustration, the second-hottest golfer on the planet behind Scheffler stumbling under the pressure of the back nine at Augusta National.
He did recover to birdie the par-5 15th and par-3 16th to jump over Morikawa into a tie for third, his fourth top-10 finish in six visits to Augusta National.
Smith knows he’s close.
”I feel like I’ve played some of my best golf around here,” he said. ”It’s quite frustrating, I guess, to not walk away with a win yet.”
The erratic round capped four days of wild swings for Smith. He arrived at the Masters well-rested, three weeks removed from a gritty one-stroke win at The Players Championship, then started with a 4-under 68 to trail Sungjae Im by just one shot.
An opening 39 on Friday led to a 2-over 74, leaving him six shots off Scheffler’s pace. He responded with a 68 in the unusual spring chill, the best round of a borderline miserable day to get him within three of Scheffler.
A duel between the two players who came in having won five tournaments combined this year appeared in the offing after Smith’s early birdies Sunday.
It quickly fell apart after that hot start. He’ll have a year to think about it. Just don’t expect the avid rugby fan and occasional fisherman to get consumed by it.
It was one bad swing. It was also one solid tournament for someone who is making a habit of playing among the final groups on spring Sundays underneath the Georgia pines and proving his trademark mullet isn’t nearly as compelling as his game.
”I love this place,” he said. ”I’ll be back here next year and trying to put up another one.”
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