NAPA – After playing nine holes during a practice round for players on Tuesday, Austin Smotherman talked about several things – the work he has put into his short game over the last few weeks, seeing family and friends as he plays in the Fortinet Championship starting on Thursday at Silverado Resort and Spa, and the start that he got in golf in the Sacramento area.
“It’s already so much more of a relaxed feeling,” Smotherman said, looking ahead to his second year on the PGA Tour. “I just feel more focused, that I gave those three weeks the attention to the parts of my game that needed it. So, I feel like I’m coming in here with my game continuing to kind of elevate.”
Smotherman, who is from Loomis (Placer County), had six top-25 finishes and 16 made cuts during his rookie season last year. He was 137th in the FedExCup Ranking and finished among the top 125 in FedEx Cup points to retain his PGA Tour card.
It was during his time off from the Tour, following the Wyndham Championship in early August, when Smotherman found about his exempt status. “Getting the good news that we kept our card, kind of the unconventional way, with those guys leaving for LIV (Golf),” he said.
Smotherman is one of three Sacramento-area players in the field for this week’s Fortinet Championship, the opening event of the PGA Tour’s 2022-23 wrap-around season. It’s a FedExCup regular season event and will be played on the par-72, 7,123-yard Silverado North Course. The tournament has an $8 million purse and all four rounds will be televised by Golf Channel. It’s the first of 44 FedExCup regular season events.
The 156-player field also has Cameron Champ, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour and the 2019 Safeway Open champion at Silverado, and Alex Lee, who got into the tournament by tying for medalist honors with Taylor Lowe at an open qualifier on Monday, Sept. 12 at El Macero Country Club (Yolo County). Lowe and Lee each fired 8-under-par 64s. Champ and Lee are from the Sacramento area.
“Northern California and Sacramento has bred good roots,” said Smotherman. “Cameron and I stay in touch. Scott McCarron reached out when I got my Tour card. I had never even met him in person. And here he is, you know, the 916 (area code) is taking care of their own.
McCarron was inducted into the First Tee of Greater Sacramento Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. McCarron, a Sacramento native, joined the PGA Tour in 1995 and won three times on Tour. A Vintage High School-Napa graduate, McCarron is one of the top players on the PGA Tour Champions and has 11 wins. He won the Charles Schwab Cup title in 2019.
Smotherman is making his second appearance at Silverado. He tied for 66th here last year after rounds of 70, 69, 73 and 75.The tournament winner earns $1.44 million and 500 FedExCup points. “This course suits our game pretty well. I feel confident. Good week,” Smotherman said near the practice green. “We’ve been working on short game and some putting. We’re smiling, having fun. Having the support and the crowds is going to be great.”
Smotherman and his wife, Jessica, are spending the week in Napa with Jessica’s uncle, Phillip French, and his family. Smotherman’s mom, Marla Smotherman, and his grandfather, Bill Acquistapace, will also be here. “My mom’s bringing some cards. We’re going to play some card games this week. She’s a big Gin Rummy fan,” said Austin. “I’ll probably run into 20 people I know at some point. I had a lot of support growing up, too. Getting to play in front of them is special.”
The official pro-am is Wednesday and the first round is Thursday. There is a cut to the low 65 players, plus ties, following Friday’s second round. Caddying for Smotherman is Austin Gaugert, who played college golf at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Gaugert has been on the bag for Smotherman since May.
“My caddie and I are gelling. He had a good offseason as well. We’re a team out here. He needs some rest as well, because I need him at his full capacity,” said Smotherman.
Fine-tuning his short game, hitting wedges and working on his putting stroke is what Smotherman focused on in the last few weeks. “Putting in general is something I think (Gaugert) and I have kind of gotten better at every single month that we’ve been together, every tournament, is just reading greens together. “I feel like his green-reading ability is better than mine. My stroke has gotten better. These greens (at Silverado) are great out here. If you’re hitting good putts, they’re going to go in this week.”
Smotherman finished eighth at the Barracuda Championship.
Other Top Finishes For Smotherman:
- Tied for 11th at the Farmers Insurance Open.
- Tied for 24th at the 3M Open.
- Tied for 25th at the Valspar Championship.
- Tied for 25th at the Wells Fargo Championship.
- Tied for 25th at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Smotherman played two years on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Playing Junior Golf In Sacramento
Smotherman grew up playing junior golf in the Sacramento area, including the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex. “We had a ton of coaches and the opportunity through First Tee. Just a lot of people that know golf really well in the area. And then on top of that, the access to so many good public courses and the kind of camaraderie and everything that’s kind of culminated around that,” he said. “My entire junior career was spent at so many good courses within the Northern California area.”
Smotherman’s Career Start
- Smotherman graduated in 2012 from Del Oro High School-Loomis.
- He played his college golf at Southern Methodist University. His accolades include being twice selected All-American Athletic Conference and was also named All-Conference USA. He was also named to the PING All-Central Region team.
- In 2016, he turned professional.
- He has played PGA Tour Latinoamerica.
- Smotherman and his wife makes their home in Dallas.
- Named an official ambassador of First Tee
- In July, Smotherman was named an official ambassador of First Tee, the PGA Tour announced in a report at www.pgatour.com.
- Smotherman was with First Tee — Greater Sacramento for 11 years, starting from when he was 7 to 18.
On its website, firstteesacramento.org, First Tee — Greater Sacramento reports:
“We enable kids to build the strength of character that empowers them through a lifetime of new challenges. By seamlessly integrating the game of golf with life skills curriculum, we create learning experiences that build inner strength, self-confidence, and resilience that kids carry to everything they do.”
At the Barracuda Championship, at Tahoe Mountain Club in Truckee in July, Smotherman recalled his experiences with First Tee — Greater Sacramento. “Pretty incredible,” he said in a transcription provided by www.asapsports.com. “I’m fortunate to have grown up in the First Tee of Greater Sacramento since I was seven, eight years old until I went off to college. One of the stronger competitive programs and chapters in the country. I know we have two of us on Tour right now, me and Cameron Champ that came from the First Tee of Sacramento. On top of that numerous other players that went off and played college golf.
“The most important thing is just the impact that I’ve seen week in and week out now, growing up in the chapter in Sacramento and then every week out here we have First Tee autograph signing, we have some First Tee clinic going on, and to see how much it’s welcomed by the whole country and every week, whatever city we’re in, it’s only making positive change. I’m fortunate to have reaped the benefits of the First Tee program, and I’m gracious to be able to give back.”
Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, 2019, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016.