On the back of being suspended by the PGA Tour following his switch to LIV Golf last August, Smith is ineligible for The Players Championship, golf’s so-called fifth major, at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida.
India’s Anirban Lahiri and Englishman Paul Casey, who finished second and third respectively 12 months ago, are also absentees this week for the same reason, but, with all due respect to them, it’s Smith missing from the field that is proving a big talking point in the game,
“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” admitted Rory McIlroy in offering his view on the matter in the build up to what is the event’s 49th staging.
“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.”
When it comes to the Ryder Cup, Jon Rahm has said on more than one occasion that he’s not in favour of a blanket ban for LIV Golf players and is probably referring in particular to his compatriot and all-time leading point scorer in the contest, Sergio Garcia.
On this one, though, Rahm shares McIlroy’s view. “I feel like as defending champion you've earned a right,” said the world No 1. “But we're talking about a very unique circumstance in the world of golf right now.
“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 quality event, but it's still a PGA Tour event. So, with that regard, no. I don't think he should be allowed to be here.”
Smith, of course, joined the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed in being instantly banned by the PGA Tour after joining Greg Norman’s Saudi-backed breakaway circuit.
“Listen, Cam Smith had a great performance in 2022. He was a deserved champion,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan of this week’s unusual situation for such a big event. “It's awkward. But you know, ultimately that's a decision he made.”
This week’s field boasts 44 of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, with fifth-ranked Smith joining Joaquin Niemann, Abraham Ancer, Thomas Pieters, Talor Gooch and Mito Pereira as the odd players out.
For the fourth time in the last five weeks, the No 2 and No 3 players are contending for the top spot, with both Scottie Scheffler and McIlroy, the 2019 winner, having a chance to jump above Rahm.
Justin Thomas, who landed the title two years ago, could be the man to beat as he holds a scoring average of 70.48 - the lowest of any player with a minimum of 15 rounds played on record - at TPC Sawgrass.