The British Open champion and one of the tour’s best young players, Smith had already sparked plenty of talk last week when the Telegraph reported that he agreed to a $100 million deal to become the latest big name to defect to the rival LIV Golf series. The Saudi-funded upstart does not have another event scheduled until just after the conclusion of the PGA Tour’s three-tournament FedEx Cup playoffs, of which the St. Jude Championship was the start. At least in theory, if Smith earned the $18 million check that goes to the playoff winner, he could consider it a massive parting gift before officially joining LIV.
If nothing else, had the 28-year-old Smith won the St. Jude Championship, he would have risen to No. 1 in the world rankings. As it happened, his 13th-place tie still left him well positioned to emerge in two weeks with the PGA Tour’s biggest single payout, though that pursuit took a hit Monday when the tour announced that Smith was withdrawing from this week’s BMW Championship because of “hip discomfort,” according to an accompanying statement from his agent.
The LIV speculation surrounding Smith served as a hard-to-ignore backdrop to the news that he was docked two strokes on Sunday. Some observers questioned the timing, given it took tour officials nearly a full day to review the incident and make a ruling that, as was noted in wagering circles, dramatically changed his chances of winning.
The sequence began Saturday at the par-3 fourth hole of Memphis’s TPC Southwind when Smith hit his tee shot into water. He took a drop, but a day later, officials determined that the ball he subsequently chipped onto the green had come to rest illegally on the red line that demarcated the penalty area near the water.
PGA Tour chief referee Gary Young explained Sunday that his staff had noticed at the time that Smith was playing a ball “awfully close” to the line but initially gave him the benefit of the doubt that he would not have struck the ball had it, in fact, been in an illegal position.
Upon a “second look” Sunday, Young said, he decided “it was worth asking” Smith about it.
“I thought it was simply going to be a situation where I asked [Smith] the question and he was going to tell me that he was comfortable that his ball was outside the penalty area,” Young said. “When I asked him the question, unfortunately, he said to me, ‘No, the ball was definitely touching the line.’ So at that point, there’s no turning back.”
“He wasn’t aware,” Young said of Smith on NBC Sports, “that no portion of the ball could be touching the penalty area line. … Cam is a complete gentleman, and he took it that way. He was completely calm through the whole process, and once he found it was a two-stroke penalty, he just said to me, ‘The rules are the rules.’ ”
Smith, who was reportedly heckled as a “sellout” during the St. Jude, did not make himself available to the media after shooting a 70 in Sunday’s round. He started the tournament with rounds of 67 and 65, and signed for another 67 on Saturday before the penalty changed it to 69.
When the PGA Tour posted a tweet showing Young’s explanation on NBC Sports, LIV golfer Lee Westwood replied with a suggestion that the tour wasn’t being subtle in an attempt to impair Smith’s chances of winning.
“Surely not,” tweeted Westwood, a 49-year-old Englishman who was among those suspended by the PGA Tour in June for competing in LIV’s inaugural event. “Too obvious!”
Not in the St. Jude field were three players — Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford — who had accumulated enough FedEx Cup points to qualify for the playoffs before jumping ship to LIV earlier this summer. On Tuesday, a federal judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order that would have superseded the PGA Tour’s suspension and allowed them to compete in the three-tournament postseason. Still ongoing, though, is an antitrust lawsuit filed against the tour by that trio and eight more banned LIV golfers.
Before the Memphis tournament got underway last week, several noteworthy PGA Tour players criticized their former colleagues for taking legal action after accepting the Saudi-backed huge sums to play elsewhere. Among them was Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player who at the time was also No. 1 in the FedEx Cup points race.
“It’s one of those deals where those guys kind of made their decision to go join another tour,” Scheffler, 26, told reporters Tuesday, “and they broke the rules and regulations of our tour, and now they’re trying to sue us, which is definitely a bit frustrating.”
Scheffler and Smith were paired in Thursday’s first round, and the former raised eyebrows when footage circulated of him walking directly in front of Smith as the latter tried to line up a putt. Smith then looked up at the passing Scheffler and held that glance for a moment, while online observers wondered if the minor breach of golf etiquette had anything to do with rumors of Smith and LIV. Scheffler was later reported to have denied any ill intent, claiming he was too focused on his play to realize where his path on the green was taking him, and Smith reportedly was at ease enough to be joking with him about it.
Scheffler, whose stellar year on the tour has included a Masters triumph and three other wins, missed the cut at the St. Jude but had built such a big lead in the FedEx Cup points race that he still only fell to second place after Sunday. Zalatoris, who defeated Sepp Straka over three tense playoff holes for his first PGA Tour win, is in first, and Smith is in third.
Smith has been linked to LIV since at least last month’s British Open, when he was asked about it during his post-victory news conference. After initially expressing some unhappiness that the question would come up immediately after his biggest moment, Smith said, “I don’t know, mate. My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.”
When the subject of a possible move to LIV came up again this week in a pretournament media session, Smith once more demurred.
“My goal here is to win the FedEx Cup playoffs,” Smith told reporters in Memphis. “That’s all I’m here for.”