KAPALUA, Hawaii — No one ever finished more under par in PGA Tour history than Cameron Smith, and he never could appreciate it until his final birdie putt Sunday in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Not with Jon Rahm, the No. 1 player in the world, on his heels every step of the way. Not with Matt Jones making a pair of eagles and a 50-foot birdie putt in a span of five holes to stay in the game at Kapalua.
In the best scoring conditions Kapalua has seen in the 24 times it has hosted the winners-only start to the new year, Smith was relentless all the day down to the 3-foot birdie putt the Aussie made on the 18th hole for an 8-under 65 and a one-shot victory over Rahm.
"Mate, it was intense,'' Smith said. "It was pretty crazy. I felt like I needed to make a birdie to kind of keep up with him or stay in front.''
Smith finished at 34-under 258, and some context is in order.
Only three players in tour history had finished at 30 under or lower. Ernie Els set the record of 31 under at Kapalua in 2003 and won by eight shots. Jordan Spieth shot 30 under in 2016, also winning by eight. Dustin Johnson shot 30 under at Liberty National in 2020 and won by 11.
Smith won by one.
"Unreal round,'' Smith said. "Something I'll never forget.''
It was a testament to four days of warm sunshine and not even enough win to move a palm frond, with soft fairways from heavy rain before the elite field arrived on the western edge of Maui, and greens that were never more pure.
Rahm never shot worse than 66, and he was one of three players to tie the Plantation course record with a 61 in the third round. He made 32 birdies for the week, tying the PGA Tour record for a 72-hole event shared by Paul Gow at the B.C. Open and Mark Calcavecchia in the Phoenix Open, both those events in 2001.
"I have every reason to be smiling,'' Rahm said about his score. "It's a bittersweet moment.''
Rahm, playing for the first time since Oct. 15, did all he could and Smith never gave him an opening. They started the final round tied for the lead. Smith pulled ahead with a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 4 and a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth.
Rahm closed within one shot with a 15-foot birdie on the 11th.
They matched birdies and pars on the same holes the rest of the way. Rahm closed with a 66 to finish at 33-under 259.
"This golf course only has one defence and that's the wind,'' Rahm said. "If people are shooting between 20 and 26 under with 20-mile-an-hour winds, what do you expect us to do when there's absolutely no wind?''
Jones tried to join the race, holing out for eagle on the 13th, making a 4-foot eagle putt on the 15th and holing a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th. A final birdie allowed Jones to post the third score of 61 — Justin Thomas also tied the record on Saturday — to finish third.
Jones was at 32-under 260, one shot better than the previous record, two shots short of winning.
"If you told me I would have shot 32 under I would have been more than happy to sit in the clubhouse and let everyone play and see what happens,'' Jones said.
Smith picked up his fourth PGA Tour victory — two were team titles in New Orleans — and became the sixth player to have won at both Hawaii stops on the PGA Tour. He won the Sony Open in Honolulu two years ago in a playoff.
He also moved to No. 10 in the world, his highest ranking, and one of his goals for the year that he ticked off in the first week.
Rahm easily kept his No. 1 ranking and did little wrong in his return from the longest break of his professional career. He had a 20-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead on the 17th, his last good chance to catch Smith, that narrowly missed.
On the par-5 closing hole, Smith came up just short of the green. His putt from 90 feet slowed to a stop about 3 feet from the hole. That meant Rahm had no choice but to hole a 50-foot eagle putt from just off the green, and it just missed on the high side.
The previous record for low score to par without winning was Bryson DeChambeau, who finished at 27 under in the BMW Championship at Caves Valley last year and lost to Patrick Cantlay in a playoff.
Cantlay, playing for the first time since the Ryder Cup, closed with a 67 to finish at 26-under par. That was only good for fourth place this week.