Own the Island Green like Cameron Smith: Deconstructing the Winning Shot at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MARCH 14: Cam Smith of Australia hits his tee shot on the 17th tee box during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 14, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach Florida. (Photo by Logan Bowles/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

How the Australian captured THE PLAYERS Championship, plus how to can hit shots just like his

Chris Cox/PGA TOUR

Todd Anderson is the Director of Instruction at the PGA TOUR Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass, home of THE PLAYERS Championship. The 2010 National PGA Teacher of the Year has seen his students amass more than 50 victories across the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour, including two FedExCup titles. He is currently rated by Golf Digest as one of the top 20 golf instructors in the United States.

Time seemed to stand still as Cameron Smith’s tee shot at TPC Sawgrass’ 17th hole made its way toward the famed island green.

And why wouldn’t it? After all, the daunting environment and windy conditions had combined to send 64 balls spiraling toward the water over four rounds at THE PLAYERS Championship, and this time was no different. With the Sunday pin in place and Smith on the verge of his first signature win, the throngs of fans in attendance held their breath as the ball came tumbling downward.

“Yeah, my heart was in the throat there for a second,” Smith said. “But I knew it was the right club.”

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – MARCH 14: Cameron Smith of Australia plays his shot from the 17th tee during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 14, 2022 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Boy, was it. Smith’s 9-iron at the 135-yard par-3 was right on the number, as the ball landed just beyond four feet from the hole. It was the second-closest shot of the day at 17 and gave Smith one last birdie – just what he needed to stave off Anirban Lahiri by a single stroke to win the PGA TOUR’s flagship event.

“I hit a really good shot,” he said. “The wind didn’t quite hit it as much as what I thought it was going to. Kind of left it alone there for a long time and just kind of helped me out there at the end. I’d be lying if I said I was aiming there. I was probably aiming 10 feet left of that. But still wanted to stay aggressive, still wanted to make birdie.”

That was the key to the shot from the eyes of Todd Anderson, Director of Instruction at the PGA TOUR Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass. Despite the daunting circumstances, Smith still took an aggressive swing on a relatively conservative starting line – a key to mastering the nerve-wracking island green. 

“He wasn’t thinking, ‘This is for THE PLAYERS, this is to win $3 million,’” Anderson said. “He took all the elements that were part of the shot, broke it down and said, ‘OK, it’s a three-quarter 9-iron, I’m aiming 15 feet left of the hole, I’m going to hit a little low fade up against the wind, try to catch the slope and get it to go down to the hole.’ 

“He stayed in the moment of executing the shot at hand, not thinking about, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s water everywhere. I’m in-between clubs. I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ then proceed to make an indecisive swing.”

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – MARCH 14: Cameron Smith of Australia acknowledges the crowds after holing out for a birdie two on the par 3, 17th hole during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass on March 14, 2022 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

How the heck do I play No. 17? 

It’s one of the most common questions Anderson fields from newcomers to TPC Sawgrass, and his answer is always the same – whatever club you take, make sure you make an aggressive swing to your target.

“It’s kind of like going into a fist fight. You want to make sure that if you’re going to go in there that you land some punches,” he said. “When you have a mentally challenging shot —because all you see is water and this little round circle of green—you have to be aggressive, pick a specific target, a specific distance you’re trying to hit, and make a decisive swing. 

“You don’t want to get up there and make a scared swing trying not to hit it in the water. You want to make a decisive swing of what you need to do to hit it on the green.”

And that’s precisely what Smith did, taking a shorter backswing while still making an aggressive swing into the ball. “Under pressure, you don’t want to be trying to do anything too easy because your adrenaline’s gone and you’re going to instinctively swing a little bit harder,” Anderson notes.

While most players spent the final round bailing out toward the front-left of the green, Smith and the chasing Lahiri both took aggressive shots at the flag, even with all that was on the line. That confidence is key on par-3s as daunting as this one, where the mind can often play games on players.

“I think the average golfer gets up there and they’re unsure as to how far they can hit it, number one, and they’re unsure they’re going to hit it solidly, number two,” Anderson said. “So basically what they do is get up there and make an uncommitted swing. They’re trying to hit the green as opposed to a specific point on the green.”

Think of it like shooting a bow and arrow, Anderson explains. If you’re aiming for the bullseye, it’s fairly easy to hit the target. “But if you’re just looking at the target,” he says, “all of the sudden it’s the old aim small, miss small thing.” 

A game plan is critical. Have a specific spot you want to hit the ball, a specific distance you’re trying to hit it, and a specific mindset as you approach the ball. “As opposed to getting up there and thinking, ‘Gee, I just hope I can hit this on the green.’ Know what I mean?” Anderson says.

Those are the key elements to owning the island green like Cameron Smith – a prepared strategy on a shot you’re comfortable playing. And if in-between clubs, take a shorter backswing but remember to stay aggressive through the ball. That way, you can control the ball and hit it solidly.

And don’t forget to have a positive swing thought, Anderson adds. Maybe it’s “Shoulder-high backswing! Accelerate through!” Whatever helps ensure that you don’t decelerate through the ball and will help you execute the shot you envisioned.

Then, go tap in for birdie. Just like Cameron Smith.

Follow Anderson on Twitter @ToddAndersonTPC, and watch Smith every week on Fox Sports Australia.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL – MARCH 29: Todd Anderson, Director of Instruction at TPC Sawgrass, working with clients on the range at TPC Sawgrass on March 29, 2017 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

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