2022 Players Championship leaderboard, grades: Cameron Smith survives late mistake to win $3.6 million

A chaotic 2022 Players Championship came to a fitting end Monday afternoon as Cameron Smith shot a 6-under 66 while making just four pars but 13 one-putts en route to a one-stroke victory over Cinderella story runner-up, Anirban Lahiri. Smith birdied the first four holes of his front and back nine, adding one more on the famed 17th at TPC Sawgrass to clinch his victory.

On a week with countless weather delays, temperatures that varied by 50 degrees, winds that tasted up to 40 miles per hour and so many bizarre moments that most lost track halfway through the event, it made sense that the top of the leaderboard looked like an amoeba halfway through the final round. With 2 hours to go in the tournament, there were 24 golfers between 6 under and 9 under on the leaderboard.

Smith was the through line, though. He got off to a scorching start with birdies at each of his first four holes and five of his first six before coming back to the field with three bogeys to close a roller coaster 33 on the front nine. Four more birdies to start the back kept him in the driver’s seat, but The Players is never over until you successfully navigate Nos. 17-18, which loomed out in front of Smith for most of the back nine.

After a heroic par save on a smother hook drive on the 16th, Smith took a line at the pin on No. 17 that made the gallery gasp. He went right of a pin on the most dangerous hole on the course — he later admitted that he may have pushed it just a bit — and sank that for his 10th birdie of the day, which set a TPC Sawgrass record for most birdies in a single round.

The final hole was an adventure as well. After Smith pushed a drive into the trees, he whipped his second into the lake up the left side and had to get up and down from 59 yards for bogey. That 3-footer was his 13th (!) one-putt on a day, leading him to gain over four strokes on the field with his putter. Smith survived a Lahiri bid for birdie on No. 18 just behind him and grabbed the biggest win of his life (along with a tidy $3.6 million).

Smith is a star, but his methodology is unconventional. He was statistically terrible off the tee all week, but he gained nearly 20 strokes on the field post-tee shots and capitalized (like he usually does) during the putting week of his life.

“I mean, [putting] was probably the big key today, to be honest,” said Smith. “It kept me in it. I made plenty of birdies, had to make a lot of good par putts as well there at the end. And yeah, it’s definitely the strength of my game. And sometimes I maybe lean on it too much, but it’s nice to see them go in.”

Smith’s mother and sister were also there to see them go in. He hadn’t seen them in over two years because of COVID-19 protocols surrounding travel out of Australia, and it was sweet to take home the biggest win of his career in front of family.

“I mean, they came over last week, and golf really took a back step, I guess,” he said. “I hadn’t seen them for so long, and all I wanted to do was hang out with them. It’s so cool to get a win for them.”

A wacky, unconventional week finally concluded a day later than it was supposed to with an unconventional star. Smith’s short game is magic, and he’s leveraged it to become one of the best players in the world. He wins all over, too. He took Kapalua when it was easy. He took TPC Sawgrass when it was nasty for five straight days.

And with the biggest event of the first quarter of the year behind us, it’s a good time to remind everyone that there’s one other place Smith has starred before. In three of his last four starts at the Masters, he’s finished in the top 10 (including a T2 in 2020). He won’t think about that event for a while, but it’s lingering out there on the horizon less than a month away. With the way he’s been playing and what he accomplished this week, Smith will surely be one of the favorites. Grade: A+

Here are the rest of our grades for the 2022 Players Championship.

2. Anirban Lahiri (-12): Playing in the final group on Monday, Lahiri shot a 3-under 69 for the best finish of his life (and a nice consolation prize of $2.2 million). He birdied No. 17 when he needed it and then nearly did the same on No. 18 to send the tournament to a playoff. It was as impressive as runner-up finishes get, and he was easy to root for all week as he would have been by far the lowest-ranked golfer (at No. 322) to win this event in its history. Grade: A+

“I want to win,” said Lahiri. “I’ve been here seven years, haven’t gotten over the line yet. That’s definitely a monkey I want to get off my back. Today was as good an opportunity as any. I guess at one point on 16 I thought it was kind of out of reach, but then again, birdieing 17, Cam kind of opened the door. But I gave it a good go. Made some mistakes today that I could have avoided, but that’s golf. I picked up a few shots, too , so I’m happy. This is a really positive week for me going forward.”

T9. Dustin Johnson (-7): DJ quietly tied the course record with a 63 on Monday as he played on the opposite side of the course as the leaders. He somehow putted it even better than Smith on the day — perhaps more impressive than the 63 — and he hit seven putts of 9 feet or longer (including a 23-footer and a 43-footer). It was nice to see DJ have a good week after some mediocre play (for him) over the last few months. This is also not a course at which he’s necessarily thrived, but a locked-in DJ would be fun to see again at Augusta National. Grade: A

T9. Victor Hovland (-7): Hovland made a wild ace early Monday morning (see below) as he finished out his third round and actually led the field from tee to green. His poor short game sunk him, though. He hit several bad short shots coming home. The scary part for the field is that he’s contending in so many events (seven top 10s in his last eight) even with a short game that clearly still lacks. If he figures that out, he’s going to win … a lot. Grade: A

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