BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA | Every time you watch her you wonder how she hasn’t won 10 times. That, of course, assumes you’ve ever watched her or even know her name.
Sarah Jane Smith is not likely to be someone you’ve followed. Even if you’re a fan of the game, the 33-year-old Australian has never won in 224 career LPGA starts and, prior to this week, had never led after any round in a major. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So, to understate the matter, she’s not one of the superstars of the women’s game.
She’s better than that. Sarah is the kind of person who will, after shooting 67-67 in a major, walk over, shake your hand and thank you for taking the time to follow her. She’s the kind of person who quietly and graciously serves on the LPGA board without fanfare or expectation of praise. Although nervous when speaking in front of a group, Sarah will tell a funny story to a stranger and won’t hesitate to pull out her phone and show you the latest updates she and her husband and caddie, Duane, have made on their Orlando home.
“We’re really waiting to have a couple of weeks off to do something with the yard,” she told me after finishing her Friday round at the U.S. Women’s Open, a near-perfect 5-under 67 at Shoal Creek, which, at the time, gave her a 5-shot lead in the U.S. Women’s Open, the biggest lead she’d ever had at any time in any event of her career. The lead fell to four shots a few minutes later but, from Sarah’s demeanor, it wouldn’t have mattered if she was leading by 10 or hovering on the cutline. The most important person in the world is always the one she’s talking to at that moment. “We don’t want to do too much with the back (yard),” she said. “Because if you do, (the lawn service) will stop taking care of it. A pool would be great, you know, because then we could do something natural with the rest and not really have to worry about it.”
Two-and-a-half hours prior to this conversation, Sarah had turned in 31 and had missed two straightforward putts inside 8 feet that would have potentially put her in the record books. Her ball-striking, always the best part of her game, was great. And her swing, an old-school throwback with a pronounced transition and a Ben Hogan-style lag, produced one beautiful, penetrating fade after another. For much of the day, every iron shot looked like it was going in the hole. She even hit the green on the only hole she bogeyed – the par-3 8th (her 17th of the day) – before pushing a 3-footer for par.
“She always hit it pretty good but this is something totally different,” Duane said. “But you’ll never see her fist-pump. Sarah is pretty cruisy.”
That’s Australian for even-keel, cool, and consistently affable.
“Obviously she’s had a pretty bad stretch, missing (the last) five cuts in a row but it was never disastrous,” Duane said. “Just a little bit off. But (now) everything’s going great. She’s hitting it well, she’s seeing the greens well and she made some pretty tidy up-and-downs.”
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Sarah has worked with Sean Foley for 13 years and she called the instructor after missing that fifth cut at Kingsmill. “I sent him a text message and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she said. “’I’m playing well and it’s just not sort of coming together.’ I said, ‘Is there a book or something I can read?’ He always has a good thing to say to keep you on track. He called me and he’s like, ‘There’s no book, you idiot. Keep showing up. It’s going to turn around.’ He just kind of set me straight.”
John Kenyon, the greenkeeper at Pelican Water Golf Club on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, is a scratch player who brought his daughter to work often. Sarah had a gift for the game and by age 11 was proficient enough to play in the Greg Norman Junior Program. That’s where she first met Duane, a good player who was her age.
The two kids saw each other a lot at junior events. They were always friendly and even shared a teacher for a while, a left-handed pro named Pete Heiniger. Duane’s dad was a golf pro at a driving range on the coast, about 15 minutes from Pelican Water. But it wasn’t until the kids were 18 and on the verge of turning pro that a friend set them up. Their first date was as partners in the Queensland Mix Foursome, one of the bigger mixed events in Australia. “We got along great,” Duane said.
They’re still getting along 15 years later. Duane intended to caddie for Q School and maybe an event or two until Sarah could find someone more qualified. One week turned into two, which became three, which is now one of the best caddie/player relationships in the game.
“The only thing I struggle with is small talk out there because we’ve already talked about everything,” Duane said. “It probably would have been smarter for her to have someone different. We made a lot of mistakes early on. At Q-School, she looked over at my yardage book and said, ‘You’re not writing anything down.’ I said, ‘What do I need to write down?’”
“Then at one of her first LPGA events (the 2006 CVS in Danville, Calif.), she was an alternate and got in at the last minute. She was, like, 11th alternate but Natalie Gulbis pulled out on the first tee and Sarah was the only one close enough to fill the spot. She holed a couple of long putts early and she was 2 under. But we got to this downhill par 3 and they’d moved the tees up. I totally screwed up the number. She hit the best shot of the day and it went over the green, over the cart path, and almost hit a cow in this farm behind the golf course. She made double.
“So, yeah, I’ve often thought that someone else could help her through stretches. But we enjoy what we do and she likes the way we do it. It’s the only way we know.”
Now they will venture into the unknown together. The weekend lead at a major championship. One thing’s for certain: no matter the outcome, Sarah Jane Smith will still be kind, generous and cruisy.