Cameron Smith didn’t land at Royal Queensland in a helicopter as the late Arnold Palmer famously did, yet Thursday’s fanfare can’t have been very different.
There’s a unique buzz to a golf course when a recently crowned major champion is stalking the grounds and excited fans are speed-walking to catch a glimpse or his next shot.
Crowds began queuing at the gates of Royal Queensland at 5am on Thursday morning and the 6am supergroup at the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship delivered in every way for a Queensland public hungry to ogle at a top-strength field for the first time since 2019.
Queensland’s Open champion roared home with four birdies on the back nine for a three-under-par 68. He playfully calls Adam Scott “the old fella” but that swing is still so pure, at 42, you are always wowed by it.
Only the mother duck on the ninth with 12 ducklings seemed to have more birdies than the seven that the 2013 Masters champion squeezed into his fine 66.
In-form Kiwi Ryan Fox made a brief stop in Auckland en route to Brisbane from last week’s tournament in Dubai. His game was still somewhere over the Tasman because he mixed prodigious driving with some ragged play for a tame one-over 72.
When Palmer made his grandstand entrance from the sky at RQ in 1963 for an 18-hole exhibition match, no one went a step further and asked him to wake up at 2.45am to prepare for his tee time.
Just as Palmer adapted with borrowed clubs and thrilled a delighted gallery, so too did Cameron Smith find a way to thrill when he shrugged off his snoozy start.
There were close to 500 fans crowded three and four deep around the tee box and spread down the fairway when Smith teed off at the 10th in the morning light. It was another incredible measure of golf reigniting. Smith himself called it “unreal”.
The fans knew all they needed… suncream, hats, a pacy stride and a quick coffee from the wagon by the practice putting green. The barista hadn’t expected peak hour when he opened at 5.30am but he calculated 200 coffees made in 90 minutes.
Remember this was 6am in the opening round, not trophy day on Sunday.
Their gallery had swelled closer to 2,500, stretched hundreds of metres down the fairway, by the time both Smith and Scott rolled in birdies on the par 5 that ended their rounds to rapturous applause.
For four-and-half hours, the vibe was more akin to the final round shootout for the Australian PGA at RACV Royal Pines in 2013. Scott was then the conquering hero back from his Masters heroics. He took down Rickie Fowler in the final group to win the first of his two PGA titles. The only grouping to approach that fervour at a PGA in the past decade was when Smith outduelled Marc Leishman in the final round of 2018 on the Gold Coast.
In Smith’s own words, he said “the brain felt a little bit foggy” on his opening nine. He didn’t find a green in regulation until the fourth and made a bogey on the shortest par 4 on the course when a delicate chip came back down the grainy slope in front of him on 12.
He played the back nine first and everything was a little out. Returning to the first tee to start his second nine, he made a dash for a toilet stop.
He must have found his Superman cape inside the cubicle because he quickly responded with his first birdie of the day.
He curled in another on his 15th hole of the day, the sixth. An up-and-down for birdie at the next and his final 3.5m birdie putt on the last salvaged everything.
This week was never going to be just about golf for Smith. He has so many “extras” on his plate from accepting the Greg Norman Medal as Australia’s top 2022 performer to the Queensland Sport Awards with Ash Barty.
There are autographs at every turn, even for 70-year-old Terry Johns from Wynnum Golf Club. A tugged Smith drive hit Johns in the right leg in the rough by the 15th fairway. He signed a golf glove and made it a gift.
Smith was awarded honorary membership at Royal Queensland this week which means for the first time he doesn’t have to pay annual fees like the rest of us.
He’s laughed and played a pro-am with the other Cameron Smith of rugby league fame.
He posed for a photo with Queensland’s Special Olympic team after his opening round.
Smith does it all with a smile but some part of him must think “these people are all here to see me play”. All here to see him play really well.
Dealing with that extra burden is something Smith is learning to deal with.
Scott has been there: “I haven’t got too many worries about Cam. He should enjoy it all. Coming home to play that summer in Australia after the Masters (win) was one of the great memories of my career.”
Certainly, the Smith family and his mates are enjoying things on course.
Smith’s diminutive grandma Carol was responsible for the “Team Smith” T-shirts which featured a photo of a wild, flowing Cam mullet on the back.
There was a beautiful moment out on the 15th early in the morning when a spectator asked what the Team Smith stuff was about.
“He’s my grandson. He’ll probably think it’s too much hype but it’s just for fun,” proud grandma said.
Smith playing for fun and in the trophy hunt come Sunday. Could there be anything better for Australian golf?
Click here for Round 1 scores