Sarah-Jane Smith and her husband/caddie Duane have spent 12 years together on the LPGA tour. Will they finally break into the winner’s circle when the Women’s British Open returns to Royal Lytham & St Annes this month?
When Sarah-Jane Smith shot to the lead at the US Women’s Open a few months back, international media outlets were rushing to learn whatever they could about the 33-year-old Queenslander.
That’s not to say they didn’t already know who she was. The World No.97 had played on the LPGA Tour since 2006 and made 222 starts. But she had only posted eight top-10s and had never claimed a title – so her story was seldom told.
On May 31 at Shoal Creek, however, Smith had given them something big to report; she had shot a five-under-par 67 and was co-leading the oldest major championship in women’s golf.
The following day, Smith fired another 67 and would eventually own a three-stroke lead heading into the weekend. Despite the enormity of the occasion, she felt calm and told reporters: “I haven’t been in the position before, but I hope to show up like it’s just another day.”
Smith, who grew up in Geelong, had been enduring a frustrating season and had missed the cut at five of her past six events. But the decision to switch back to an older set of clubs – and some words of wisdom from her instructor, Sean Foley, was clearly paying dividends.
“I sent (Sean) a text message on Sunday and
THERE HAVE BEEN A FEW POINTS WHERE WE HAD A NIL BANK BALANCE AND WE WERE STAYING IN SOME QUESTIONABLE PARTS OF TOWN TO SAVE MONEY. – SARAH-JANE SMITH
I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. 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 called me on Monday and he’s like, ‘there is no book, you idiot. Keep showing up, it’s going to turn around’. He just kind of set me straight,” Smith said.
Another protagonist to this story is Duane Smith, who married Sarah-Jane in 2009 and has caddied for her ever since she turned professional in 2004. The couple met 21 years ago on the Sunshine Coast during their lessons with PGA pro Peter Heiniger. But it took seven years (and the Queensland Mixed Foursomes Championship) for the pair to actually summon the courage to speak to one another – and they have been inseparable ever since.
“There have been times we’ve talked about it (ending the on-course relationship),” Smith said. “When you’re struggling, sometimes fresh eyes and ideas can make a huge dierence. But when it came to asking someone else, I just didn’t feel it was something I wanted. I’ve played my whole professional career with Duane by my side and there’s such a comfort to that. I would feel like part of me was missing out there without him.”
Duane echoed those thoughts: “For the most part we do a good job of keeping it professional on the golf course. Of course we have bad days but we’re very lucky that we can do it and that it works. I love working together and that it’s just been us our entire career and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made by learning along the way together.”
The passion they have for each other, and for the game of golf, is evident in both of their voices – so it must have been disappointing when Sarah-Jane shot weekend scores of 74 and 78 to slip back into a share of fifth at the US Open. Nevertheless, the Smiths took the result in their stride and chose to focus on the positives instead.
“It was such an unusual week, it felt like two dierent tournaments,” Smith said. “The first two days I felt under the radar, then Saturday I felt like I hit the ball well but the nerves showed themselves on the greens. Sunday was obviously disappointing but then to have a good result, it was a bit of a weird feeling. I was disappointed but happy.”
Smith used a similar tone when asked to describe her professional career, which has involved plenty of hard work and ultimately epitomises the term ‘journeywoman’.
“It’s definitely been up and down,” Smith said. “There have been a few points where we had a nil bank balance and we were staying in some questionable parts of town to save money. But they are some of our best memories.
“The fact that Duane and I have done it together from the beginning makes the lows easier and the highs that much sweeter.”
One recent high was making the Australian team for this year’s International Crown, which will be played at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Korea this October. But for now, Smith has her eyes firmly fixed on the task that awaits her at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
“I love the challenge of the British Open,”
Smith said. “It’s probably the only event of the year that if it rains sideways and is cold, it’s okay, it’s part of the experience and in a strange way makes it feel more like the British Open.”
Smith missed the cut at Kingsbarns last year. But she finished with a share of 17th at the championship in 2016 and has been the highestfinishing Australian at the past two majors: T5 (US Women’s Open) and T11 ( Women’s PGA Championship).
The aable veteran credits her impressive performances to an improvement in her short game and a key piece of technology.
“This year we made the decision to get a FlightScope,” Smith said. “I don’t use it much for my long game, but it has made my wedge game one of the strongest parts of my game, which might have been the weakest this time last year.”
The recent success Smith has enjoyed could easily be attributed to the advice of Foley, her change of clubs or the employment of FlightScope. But should she finally break into the winner’s circle at the Women’s British Open, you can guarantee she will point to the one constant of her professional career – her husband and caddie, Duane.
“I think we’ve been able to make our on-course relationship work because we balance each other out,” Smith said. “It’s definitely not always easy but I’m proud of the fact we work together and what we have achieved together as a team.”
Duane and Sarah-Jane have been inseperable since she turned pro in 2004.
Smith says she loves the challenge the Women’s British Open presents.