The swift removal of Cameron Smith’s name from the winner’s reserved parking spot at TPC Sawgrass when he joined LIV Golf last year was a clear signal he wouldn’t get to defend his title at The Players Championship this week.
Smith also dropped another place in the world rankings, to No.5, ahead of the showpiece event he won in 2022 as one of five victories that put him on the precipice of the world No.1 ranking he now knows he’ll likely never hold.
But while the superstar Queensland won’t be competing anywhere this week as the best players in the world gather just a 10-minute drive from Smith’s home in Florida for a title Smith called the “fifth major” after his win, a resurgent Jason Day will lead a seven-man Aussie charge on the back of a fourth-straight top-10 finish.
Day’s career resurgence continued at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where an 8m parr putt on the last hole, and a bogey from Victor Hovland, elevated the 32-year-old into a tie for 10th.
The best-performed Australian on the PGA Tour this year, having already banked more than $3.6m in earnings, which is more than he made in the past two seasons combined as he dropped to 140 in the world, Day is playing with renewed confidence.
His likely presence at Augusta, needing only to stay in the top 50 in the world for three weeks, would take the Australian presence to four for now, joining 2013 champ Adam Scott, Smith, with LIV players cleared to play, and amateur Harrison Crowe.
Min Woo Lee and Lucas Herbert, who are both playing at The Players Championship, are 50 and 51 respectively on the rankings and on the cusp of adding to that Masters contingent.
Despite returning to the top-50 and playing as well as he has since he romped to the top of the rankings, Day said he needed to keep working to be a “contender”.
“Working my way back inside the top 50, it’s obviously a really great thing. I’ve enjoyed the journey thus far,” said the world No.43.
“With the recent form I feel encouraged with the things that I’m working on knowing they’re showing a lot of good signs.
“I just have to keep pushing those little things and hopefully just turns into good form. Do I feel like ‘‘m a contender right now? I feel like I can play well and I can win, but to be able to walk in there and confidently say I can win is a different story.
“I know that there’s a lot of work to get back to that stage of when I was No. 1 in the world where I could feel like I could walk into any tournament and know that I could win.”
Day will be joined by Scott, Herbert, Lee, Aaron Baddeley, Harrison Endycott and Cameron Davis at The Players Championship.