MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Ryan Palmer could feel Cam Smith’s footsteps approaching from behind the microphone. After an entire round playing together, he wanted to get in one last shot.
“That’s what I love about what we do out here, there’s always somewhere to go up and there’s always something to play for,” Palmer said, intentionally framing a question about the BMW Championship within the larger narrative that has consumed golf this season, a narrative in which Smith has become a central figure. “We’re not playing for just money.”
Smith is the latest golfer rumored to soon be defecting to LIV Golf and he’s just two shots back of the lead heading into Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Championship. He would ascend to No. 1 in the world rankings should he win this tournament.
And walking the course with him offered insight into just how bad this could get 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 by doing so with that distinctive mullet of his, he built a brand through the PGA Tour.
A brand that’s stronger right now than a lot of the golfers expected to remain loyal to the PGA Tour. A brand that LIV Golf has reportedly deemed to be worth $100 million. A brand that might be as painful to lose as any of the big names that already left.
Just imagine if Smith leaves the PGA Tour after winning one of its signature events (The Players), the last major of the year, and then the season-ending postseason the Tour has spent more than a decade trying to turn into a big deal. Imagine if he does it as the No. 1 golfer in the world.
“I had Jordan Spieth, (Matt) Fitzpatrick and (Max) Homa yesterday, and this guy has way more fans,” said FedEx St. Jude Championship volunteer standard bearer Nick Johnson. “He got more yells at him today than all three combined.”
Some are not what you’d ever expect on a golf course, at least until this year.
“$100 million man!,” a patron screamed as Smith walked by on No. 14.
“Sellout!” shouted another.
“Don’t go to LIV!” someone pleaded as Smith ambled down the 17th fairway.
But there were far more cheers than jeers. This is not another situation like last year, when Bryson DeChambeau’s critics outnumbered his champions during a Sunday collapse at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Championship.
Smith got a loud roar upon being introduced on the 18th green and took selfies with fans as he headed to sign his scorecard.
“The last few weeks at home has been basically can’t go out to dinner without anyone saying hello or wanting a picture,” Smith said of his recent burst in notoriety since winning The Open Championship. “So it’s been a little bit different, but yeah, still getting used to it.”
Austin Allen, for instance, drove all the way from Murray, Kentucky, to take in Saturday’s third round. His plan was to follow Scottie Scheffler, the current No. 1 in the world. Those plans went awry when Scheffler, who generated headlines by walking across Smith’s sightline as he lined up a putt in the first round, missed the cut.
The golfer Allen chose to follow instead? Smith. And the Aussie made a particularly endearing impression on the seventh hole.
He hit his tee shot far right into the crowd. So far that it broke a fan’s cell phone.
“What’s your phone number?” Smith asked her, according to Allen. “I’ll buy you a new phone.”
He certainly can afford it.
But the PGA Tour can’t afford for Smith to keep going like this. To potentially become the best golfer in the world right before he bolts for the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series that lured Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and DeChambeau before him.
The stakes are high Sunday, and Smith doesn’t seem to be distracted by them, or by Palmer, or by any of the controversy currently swirling around him.
“I’m just trying to hit the best shot I can,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m here to do is to hit good golf shots and make birdies.”
And, perhaps, give the PGA Tour the nightmare it so desperately needs to avoid.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto