Ryan Palmer can hear Cam Smith’s footsteps approaching from behind the microphone. After playing a full round together, he wanted to get in one last shot.
“That’s what I love about what we do here, there’s room to climb and there’s always something to play for,” Palmer said, deliberately framing the question of the BMW Championship in the larger narrative that has consumed golf this season. A narrative in which Smith is the central figure. We don’t just play for money.
Welcome to the strangest FedEx Cup playoff in PGA Tour history, and the annual sojourn in Memphis could double as the start of the PGA Tour’s worst nightmare.
Smith is the latest golfer to withdraw from the LIV Golf Series and is just two shots off heading into Sunday’s FedEx St. Jude Championship. If he wins this tournament, he will be ranked No. 1 in the world.
And walking the course with him gave a sense of just how bad this could be for the PGA Tour. His gallery picked up steam just as he did on the back nine. By winning the Players Championship and the Open Championship and making that his specialty, he built a brand on the PGA Tour.
A brand now stronger than many golfers expected to remain loyal to the PGA Tour. The LIV Golf brand is reportedly worth $100 million. Losing a brand like any of the big names that have gone before can be painful.
Summary of the third round:Why Cameron Smith, Will Zalatoris FedEx St. They say that the Jude Championship leaderboard is very crowded
Epic Meltdown:Rickie Fuller’s quintuple bogey at No. 18 could end his season in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Imagine if Smith left the PGA Tour after winning one of his signature events (the Players), the last major of the year, and then spent more than a decade turning the tour into a big deal during the season-ending postseason. Imagine if he made it to the No. 1 golfer in the world.
“Yesterday I had Jordan Spieth (Matt) Fitzpatrick and (Max) Homa, and this guy has a lot of fans,” said FedEx St. Jude Championship volunteer standard bearer Nick Johnson. “He yelled at him more than all three of them combined today.”
Some of them are not what they expect on the golf course, at least until this year.
“The 100 million dollar man,” shouted one fan as Smith passed at No. 14.
“The law!” shouted another.
“Don’t go to LIV!” A man pleaded as Smith took down the 17th fairway.
But there were more joys than mockery. It’s not like last year, when Bryson DeChambeau’s critics outshone the champions during Sunday’s fall at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Championship.
Smith was booed when he was introduced on the 18th green and posed for a selfie with fans as he headed to sign his scorecard.
“The last few weeks at home, nobody can go out to dinner without saying hello or asking for a picture,” Smith said of his recent popularity after winning the Open Championship. “So it was a little different, but yeah, he’s still practicing.”
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In the crowd:A Chilean flag for Joaquin Niemann, a St. Jude connection and a memory made through golf
Austin Allen, for example, pulled away from Murray, Kentucky to win Saturday’s third round. His plan was to follow Scotty Scheffler, the current No. 1 in the world. Those plans were dashed when Scheffler, who made headlines by walking in Smith’s line of sight, was knocked out in the first round.
Did the golfer choose to follow instead? Smith and the Aussies made a particularly impressive impression on the seventh hole.
Titus shot away into the crowd. So far, he has broken a fan’s cellphone.
“What’s your phone number?” Smith asked her, according to Allen. “I’ll buy you a new phone.”
He can definitely afford it.
But the PGA Tour can’t afford to keep Smith going. To become the world’s best golfer before closing out the Saudi-funded LIV Golf Series, which saw Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and DeChambeau before him.
The stakes are high Sunday, and Smith doesn’t seem distracted by them, or Palmer, or any of the controversy currently swirling around him.
“I’m just trying to hit the best shot I can,” Smith said. “I’m here to hit good golf shots and make birdies.”
And, perhaps, give the PGA Tour the illusion it so desperately needs to escape.
You can reach Business Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto by email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto