PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods isn’t the only familiar name missing at the Players Championship this week.
Defending champion Cameron Smith, who had eight one-putts in the final nine holes to win by a stroke over India’s Anirban Lahiri last year, also isn’t at TPC Sawgrass to defend what was at the time the biggest victory of his career.
About four months after winning the so-called “fifth major,” Smith claimed an actual major championship when he was victorious at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews in July. Following the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship about a month later, Smith signed a multiyear contract with the LIV Golf circuit, which is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” said Rory McIlroy, who won the Players in 2019. “But he made a decision that he felt was the best thing for him, and he knew that decision was going to come with consequences, and one of the consequences is right now not being able to play on the PGA Tour.”
Smith isn’t the only top finisher from a year ago who isn’t in this week’s field. Lahiri and England’s Paul Casey, who finished third in 2022, are now playing in the LIV Golf League, as are Harold Varner III and Dustin Johnson, who finished in the top 10.
Even without the LIV Golf players, 44 of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking and 29 of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup Playoff points list are in the field.
World No. 1 golfer Jon Rahm said he has always believed that a defending champion should have a spot in a tournament the next year. But Rahm believes Smith’s situation is different.
“We’re talking about different circumstances right now,” Rahm said. “Some players made a choice of going to a different golf league knowing that they weren’t going to be allowed to play here. And yes, this is a massive event. It is very close to a major, but it’s still a PGA Tour event. So with that regard, no, I don’t think just him should be allowed to be here.”
Making matters more uncomfortable is that Smith, from Australia, had moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, where the PGA Tour is headquartered. He practiced at TPC Sawgrass.
“Listen, Cam Smith had a great performance in 2022,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “He was a deserved champion. I think as I look to this week and I look at the field that we have here and the strength from top to bottom, I think when we leave here on Sunday night we’re going to crown another deserving champion.
“To answer your question directly, yes, it’s awkward. But you know, ultimately that’s a decision he made, and we’ve got an unbelievable field here this week and a history and tradition that one of these 144 is going to go seek to get.”