2023 British Open: Cameron Smith is set to defend his title and reflects on his long year

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HOYLAKE, England (AP) — The chill Aussie vibe of Cameron Smith gave way to more emotion than he expected Monday while taking part in one of many royal and ancient traditions at the British Open.

As the defending champion, he had to return the claret jug.

“I was actually holding back some tears. A bit of a moment, I guess, that crept up on me,” Smith said. “It wasn’t hard to hand it back. I wasn’t like, ‘Not letting it go.’ But it was a moment that I guess you don’t think about, and then all of a sudden it’s there. And you want it back.”

Getting the jug back might be as difficult as getting back his parking spot at the TPC Sawgrass.

Smith lost that privilege that goes to The Players Championship winner when he chose to leave the PGA Tour for Saudi-funded LIV Golf, maybe not the biggest name to defect but the only reigning major champion at the time.

It’s all part of a long year that Smith feels went by so quickly.

His introduction of “champion golfer of the year” was still ringing in his head when he was asked about whether he was going to join LIV, his most uncomfortable moment.

And then lawsuits were filed. Smith joined LIV. He lost his parking spot and practice privileges at the home of the PGA Tour. He won the second event he played. He went home to Australia for the offseason. He played in three majors.

And now he arrives at Royal Liverpool with golf in an even more chaotic state than it was a year ago, with a framework agreement that has no details and a Senate hearing that revealed juicy documents but no real direction on how the PGA Tour and LIV Golf will coexist.

“I think golf is in a great spot,” Smith said. “There’s obviously a lot of things that are up in the air that no one really knows at the moment. I don’t even think the guys that are trying to sort it out really know what this outcome is going to be like. Yeah, a lot of uncertainty but I’m optimistic that LIV will be around in the future.”

For now what matters is winning back gold’s oldest trophy, a feat no one has managed since Padraig Harrington won in 2007 at Carnoustie and 2008 at Royal Birkdale.

Monday brought a full day of practice on a links course that has been around for 154 years and is situated on the other side of the River Mersey from Liverpool. The day began with passing showers and ended with warm sunshine, perfect weather for a brand of golf that is fickle even on normal days.

Rory McIlroy arrived fresh off winning the Scottish Open, a shot of confidence for him as he tries to end his nine-year drought in the majors on a course where he went wire-to-wire to win the claret jug in 2014.

McIlroy promptly told the R&A he would not be holding a pre-tournament news conference, similar to what he did at the U.S. Open last month in Los Angeles. Some of that presumably is to avoid the endless questions and speculation on the PGA Tour deal with the Saudis.

He has been a big voice in golf the last year.

Smith has done most of his talking with his play, and it was nothing short of brilliant last year when he shot 64 on the final day at St. Andrews to deny McIlroy and Cameron Young.

“It does seem like a long time ago, last year,” Smith said. “I think it all went so quick for me, really, between the decision to go and then being back in Australia and then starting again this year. I wasn’t a part of all the lawsuit stuff. I tried to stay as far away from that as possible.

“Like I’ve said in the past, the PGA Tour is a great place to play golf, and it will be for a very long time. I don’t think there was any part of me that made me think I made the wrong decision throughout any part of the last eight or nine months.”

He has mixed it up with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, two of the most prominent players in the rival league. Smith only sees the likes of McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm four times a year at the majors.

The world ranking is hard to follow because LIV Golf hasn’t received ranking points for the last year. Only three LIV players — Smith at No. 7, Koepka at No. 12 and Joaquin Niemann at No. 43 — are among the top 50 in the world.

Rankings aside, golf has never been deeper and tougher, and that makes it hard on Smith or anyone else to get the silver claret jug. That’s a feeling Smith knows, even after the ceremony of giving it back.

“It still doesn’t feel real, even a year down the road,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get it back. I want that thing back so bad.”

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