As he looked around at the area from his spot on the practice green at Silverado Resort and Spa on Tuesday, Austin Smotherman realized he was not getting ready to play in a Korn Ferry Tour event.
He noticed the tents and grandstands at the 18th hole of the North Course.
He talked about the overall size of the player’s locker room.
He looked back on a practice round that he had played earlier in the day with Jon Rahm, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, and Cameron Champ, one of the young stars on the PGA Tour who is from Sacramento.
He discussed the challenging set-up of the golf course — the height and thickness of the rough, the firmness of the greens, the importance of hitting greens in regulation.
No, it’s not the Korn Ferry Tour, where Smotherman has spent the last two years.
Welcome to the PGA Tour, Austin Smotherman.
Welcome to Silverado and the Fortinet Championship, the opening event of the 2021-22 Tour season that teed off Thursday.
“It’s what I’ve dreamed of. It’s where I have always expected I’d get to at some point in my career,” he said. “Obviously, we’re happy that it’s now. Just embracing it and keeping that perspective and where we’ve come from. We definitely know we’ve earned it. This is where we belong.”
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Smotherman is from Loomis, just up Interstate 80 in Placer County. He is a 2012 graduate of Del Oro High School and concluded his prep career in victorious fashion, winning the CIF State Championship that same year.
He played four years of college golf at Southern Methodist University, where he was twice named All-American Athletic Conference, with nine top-10 finishes for the Mustangs. He was also selected All-Conference USA. As a junior, he was chosen to the PING All-Central Region team.
He turned professional in 2016 and finished in a tie for 10th place at the U.S. Q-School. From there, he played PGA Tour Latinoamerica, compiling six top-25 finishes, during the 2017 season. He won the Mexican Open at Tijuana Country Club in 2018.
He started on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019 and won the Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation at The Grove, in College Grove, Tennessee this past May. It’s his second win since turning pro.
Smotherman is one of 25 rookies in this week’s Fortinet Championship, a $7 million event that is televised by Golf Channel. This is only his second PGA Tour event, as he missed the cut at the AT&T Byron Nelson while playing on a sponsor’s invitation in 2017.
The difference between the Korn Ferry and the PGA Tour?
“Just the size of everything," he said. "You have a three-story grandstand behind No. 18 that we’re looking at right now. And the magnitude of having more media on site. We’ve got concerts being set up right now. It’s just the grandeur of everything, that you can kind of get caught up in it. But you know, golf is still golf. We’re out here playing 72 holes this week.”
There are 27 rookies in this season’s class on the PGA Tour. It’s the most in a season since 2011.
Smotherman's week began with a meeting for those who have secured their Tour cards for the season.
“Rookie year has begun. We showed up here this weekend to do our new-member orientation and it kind of got the juices flowing," he said. "It’s like going to the first day of school. We walked in there. We had backpacks, taking notes and just learning the ins and outs of the PGA Tour and how it works and how we can best utilize every opportunity we have out here.
“We’re with the big dogs now.”
The inaugural Fortinet Championship got going Thursday, with a field of 156 players taking on Silverado’s par-72, 7,123 yard North Course. First- and second-round starting times were from 7 a.m. to 2:22 p.m., from the Nos. 1 and 10 tees. Smotherman started at 2 p.m. Thursday from the No. 10 tee and plays his second round on Friday starting at 8:50 a.m. from No. 1.
“I think this whole group of 25 from our regular-season graduating class on the Korn Ferry is going to be more than ready to come out and dominate,” said Smotherman, who has Daniel Gregory as his caddie.
“I’ve seen all 18 holes. You have just got to hit a bunch of greens. They’re not that big of greens. You just have to get them in the right sections. They are just firm enough.
“It feels like we’re ready. The greens are great. Hopefully we give the fans what they want.”
Smotherman locked up his 2021-22 PGA Tour membership by finishing No. 25 in the Korn Ferry Tour points standings in August. He was one of 25 players to earn cards at the regular-season ending Pinnacle Bank Championship presented by Aetna at The Club at Indian Creek in Omaha, Nebraska. Smotherman moved up one spot, from 26th to 25th, to receive the last PGA Tour card.
“I needed so much confirmation, because I knew it was not going to be by a wide margin,” said Smotherman, 27, who now makes his home in Dallas. “We were taking everything into account with what was going on behind us. I could finally walk out of there with a little bit of acceptance that it happened.”
Smotherman had five top-10 finishes and ranked inside the top 10 on Tour in greens in regulation percentage this past season.
He played in the three-event Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
He tied for 32nd at the Albertsons Boise Open presented by Chevron.
He finished 57th at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in Columbus, Ohio.
He missed the cut at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance in Newburgh, Indiana.
The Korn Ferry Tour’s mission, according to pgatour.com, “is to identify and develop golf’s next stars, preparing them to compete and win on the game’s biggest stage. Since 2013, the Korn Ferry Tour has provided 50 PGA Tour cards annually.”
Smotherman is expecting family and friends from his hometown to be in the gallery this week.
“It definitely makes this a little bit sweeter, to be starting 80 miles from where I grew up,” he said. “I’m not going to try and temper it. I’m going to let it build and let my emotion kind of fuel my game for this whole first week and this whole season. It’s going to be a lot of first-time experiences and I’m not going to try and dampen them at all.
“I want to be able to feel what it’s like, because we’re here on the big show, playing in front of thousands of people now each week and on TV. I want to have that excitement grow.”
Smotherman took up the game at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento. He played in two junior programs there, Little Linkers and Junior Linkers, at the Arcade Creek Course. He was awarded a Morton Golf Foundation college scholarship.
“I want to be able to succeed out here,” he said.
The Fortinet Championship continues over the weekend, with the third round on Saturday and the final round on Sunday.
Two rock icons and a country star will take the music stage at the Fortinet Championship in mid-September as PGA golf returns to Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa.
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