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Cameron Smith joins Australia's greats as PGA Champion

Smith shows off the Joe Kirkwood cup (Photo: Bruce Young)
Cameron Smith has made his first 72-hole individual win as a professional one he will treasure for the rest of his life.

His playoff victory today over Jordan Zunic in one of Australian golf’s flagship events, the Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines, not only earns Smith his first win but provides exemption to the European Tour for two years, a $237,500 winner's cheque and an elevation in world ranking to around 60th.

The 24-year-old joins some of Australian golf's greatest names as a winner of the Joe Kirkwood Cup and while not in their league just yet he is on his way to even bigger things after his breakthrough on the Gold Coast.

Smith parred the second extra hole after both he and Zunic had completed regulation play at 18 under par to hold off Adam Bland by one shot and Marc Leishman and David Bransdon by four.

Both Smith and Zunic would bogey holes early, Zunic at the very first hole of the round on a day where play had been brought forward by three hours to avoid potential and forecast afternoon storms.

Cameron Smith approaches the 7th today.

Smith though, having begun the day three behind Zunic, would birdie five of his next seven holes and by the turn he trailed Zunic by just one.

Zunic bogeyed the 10th and from that point on the pair were essentially locked in a ding dong battle, although Smith did go one ahead when he birdied the 17th after a fine shot over the trees to 12 feet to move ahead at what appeared to be a crucial point.

Smith had the chance to put it away in regulation play but missed a five-footer for par at the 72nd hole before they headed back to the 18th to break the deadlock.

The first extra hole was halved with pars, Smith producing a superb par save from left of the green while Zunic two-putted from 35 feet.

At the second extra hole Zunic’s drive found the rough between the bunkers and he was faced with a difficult lie. Unable to reach the green Zunic was 15 metres short of the green and pitched to 13 feet. Smith also missed the green but a stunning pitch from an awkward lie set up a four-foot par save which he was able to make after Zunic missed his.

The par putt that Zunic missed at the second extra hole.

“Yeah, that one was pretty good,” said Smith with what must be considered an understatement. “I didn't have the best lie down there. In standard play I had a pretty good lie down there and I was able to kind of nick it a little bit, but that second one was a bit nasty, a bit into the grain and just stayed aggressive with it and it paid off.“

For Smith the win opens doors to the European Tour but interestingly he was not aware until reminded in the media conference.

“Jeez, I don't know. Yeah, I didn't even realize that that was what happened. I didn't even know. Yeah, I might go over there for a few weeks and maybe do a little playing holiday type thing, I'm not sure. It would be nice to get over there and play some, I'm sure.”

It was clearly a special day for Smith and to have had his family in attendance made it even more so.

"Yeah, it's awesome. Neither my mum or dad were there for the win in New Orleans. To be able to win in front of them and in front of other family and friends, and then winning in Queensland makes it so much more special to me."

Smith paid compliments to Zunic, with whom he played a lot of junior golf in Australian events.

“Jordan's a pretty experienced player as well, I think he's won the New Zealand Open a couple years ago, that's one of the big events down here so he's been in that situation before. I thought he handled it pretty good. It was just, I don't know, just at the end hit just a bit of a bad drive and that was it."

Smith was also full of praise for the manner in which the revamped RACV Royal Pines played this week. “Yeah, probably this year has seen the most improvement. I think we've played three years on this course now since the redesign.

“Last year to this year was a huge improvement, just the grass filling in and you can actually play some shots that Mr. Marsh (course designer Graham Marsh) wants you to play. So it was nice to be able to do that because in years past you really couldn't do anything with some of the holes.

Zunic was disappointed not to have won but he was happy with the way he played and philosophical about what the week had done for him.

“I just tried to keep doing what I've been doing the last four days,” he said. “I mean, I felt really good, had a good mindset all day. Didn't quite hit it as well off the tee today which didn't give me as many birdie opportunities, and the couple birdie opportunities I had late on the back nine in regular play I just ran by the edge. 

“So I'm pretty happy with everything this week. I've come a long way from where I was last week and missing a few cuts, so I'm happy about that. I loved every minute of it.

"I had my family in the crowd there and obviously Olivia by my side there, my girlfriend caddying. She was great, she helped me out through the whole way.

"You know, we did everything we could so that's all I could do.  Cam was just too good on the back (nine)."

Zunic and partner Olivia.

Adam Bland finished alone in 3rd position and claimed the spot as the leading player on the Australasian Order of Merit not otherwise exempt for the European Tour and as a result will get the opportunity to play the European Tour in 2018 if he so chooses.

Bland was unsure as to whether he would take up the opportunity as he is exempt on the Japan Golf Tour but just the chance to play in Europe is one he will seriously consider.

A final round of 68 saw him close late on the leaders and he will earn $90,000 for his troubles.

“Awesome way to finish,” said Bland.  “I didn't have my game really today or the last two days after the first few days, but hung tough and got around with a chance to win coming down the last few holes, so it was still good to be there.”

Adam Bland on the tee at Royal Pines' driveable 8th.

Marc Leishman and David Bransdon produced closing rounds of 68 to share 4th position, Leishman ending what has been a brilliant season on a positive note after perhaps a disappointing stretch of golf through middle of this event.

And so the two flagship events of the Australian summer, last week’s Australian Open and the Australian PGA Championship have gone to two of Australia’s emerging stars, Cameron Davis and Cameron Smith.

It might not yet signal a changing of the guard in Australian golf but their victories offer plenty of hope for the future for them as individuals and for the country’s golfing stocks.   

SIGNATURE HOLES: 16TH AT ROYAL PINES (QLD)

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