The 24-year-old Englishman, a wire-to-wire winner in RAK last October, speaks to John McAuley about his whirlwind season that included debut at the US PGA Championship and a win at the Porsche European Open
Jordan Smith says UAE 'a special place for me' but 'still pinching myself' after trail-blazing rookie season on European Tour
Jordan Smith was back in Ras Al Khaimah last week, in part enjoying some well-deserved downtime, in part promoting an emirate that played a significant role in his incredible recent rise.
The 24-year-old Englishman was catching breath from a breakthrough year on the European Tour, but still found a spare couple of hours to mix some golf and paddle-boarding as he recorded a video for next month’s Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge on the Challenge Tour.
The tournament is close to Smith’s heart and most probably always will be, given he triumphed there last year. It served as a springboard to an outstanding 2017 thus far.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Smith says. “It’s been a pretty quick rise.”
Hasn’t it just. In winning wire-to-wire in RAK last October, Smith took a huge step towards sealing the Challenge Tour's Order of Merit. With it, he earned promotion to this season’s European Tour, less than a year after reigning supreme on the Euro Pro Tour. He turned professional only in 2014.
Since, Smith has gone head-to-head with Rory McIlroy in South Africa, won on the European Tour, finished tied-ninth at his first major and clinched a place in November’s DP World Tour Championship, the season-ending stop on the Race to Dubai.
All in all, not bad for a rookie. Rewind a little, and RAK helped lay the foundations.
“Obviously, the UAE’s a special place for me,” Smith says. “My second win on the Challenge Tour was in RAK, then I came out here for the Desert Swing early in the European Tour season and that kick-started that for me.
“So it’s definitely a place I like. The win in RAK was a huge confidence boost. It helped get me to where I am now.”
The “now” constitutes 70th in the world rankings and 17th on the Race to Dubai, with some of the European Tour’s premier events still to come. A win this summer at the Porsche European Open propelled Smith up the rankings, one of five top 10s this year, the last of which came on major debut at last month’s US PGA Championship. The first was at the BMW South African Open in January, when Smith played in the final group on Sunday alongside McIlroy. McIlroy finished second, Smith third.
"Rory was awesome," he says. "I saw him play the first few holes and thought 'Jeez, this guy is good'. It was just rocketing off the club. After we played, he came up to me and said 'you’ve got the game, you can win'. It was really nice of him to say that."
By July, McIlroy's words had proved prophetic. Smith won in Germany, defeating Frenchman Alexander Levy in a play-off to break his European Tour duck and book his place two weeks later at the PGA Championship.
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Smith impressed in Hamburg, not just in getting into contention, but in remaining calm in the title shoot-out. Back home in England, his parents were sweating it out for him anyway.
“My dad watched only the last two holes and the two play-off holes,” Smith says. “He was too nervous, he had to get out of the house. And my mum had a few panic attacks.
“I was actually surprisingly calm. I don’t know how or why or whatever, but I knew it was only me against Alex. I managed to play some of the best golf I’ve ever played.”
His form continued into the PGA Championship. There, Smith thrived, becoming the best-placed Brit in a field comprising McIlroy, Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood. Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, was one shot back.
“My first major went very well,” Smith says. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself, any expectation. I just went out there to enjoy myself. And it seemed to all click.”
Should Smith find his groove upon his return to the tour, then the last few months of the season promise much. With his place at the DP World Tour Championship already cemented, he will look to conclude a superb campaign with a strong showing at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
He is familiar with the place, having spent time around New Year honing his game at the site’s European Tour Performance Institute. Back then, Smith played the adjacent Fire course, but has yet to sample Earth, where the Race to Dubai reaches its climax. Thankfully, he will not have too long to wait.
“I couldn’t get on it back then, it was fully booked,” Smith says. “But the Race to Dubai was the goal at the start of the year. First, to keep my card, and then to try make that final event. Because if you’ve made that you’ve had a pretty good season.
“I’m looking forward to these next few months. I’ve got my first [World Golf Championship] in China, as well. Those last four events from there, playing with the best guys in the world, for the big prize funds. It’s going to be fun.”