Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Golfweek
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Sarah Jane Smith led her national open after two rounds in 2017 and trailed by one heading into the final round. On her way out of the media room at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australia Open, someone who knows better said, “Just enjoy it. Nobody expects anything out of you anyway.”
Luckily Smith, a 33-year-old who got her start on the LPGA a dozen years ago, has a great sense of humor. She laughed off the ridiculous comment but recognizes there’s a shred of truth to it.
The LPGA relies heavily on its stars. Smaller viewing windows, fewer cameras and a shortage of network television opportunities mean players such as Smith – who finished 50th on the LPGA money list last season – can easily get lost in the crowd. Television and print media (this writer included) often focus on needle-movers in an attempt to grow the audience. Smith hasn’t won on the LPGA, which means her story largely goes untold.
That’s a shame, because you’d love Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
“She’s the kindest girl that you can find,” Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg said.
At every tour stop Duane Smith, Sarah Jane’s husband and caddie, hears the same type of comments: “I could never be around my wife that much,” or “I couldn’t work with my wife.”
What’s the longest they’ve been apart recently? Duane goes back two weeks to when Sarah Jane played in a pro-am down in South Florida while he wandered around Lowe’s. They were apart six hours that day.
Beyond that he’d have to go back to 2016 when they took separate flights coming back from Japan. That break came at a good time, he said.
“I always say we’re really lucky,” the easygoing Duane said. “We definitely have our bad days, but they’re not that bad and they’re not that often.”
Smith, an only child, started off as a swimmer in Queensland and took to golf when her coach told her she needed another activity during the offseason. She followed her father – a scratch golfer – to the course, and it soon became her greatest passion.
Duane was a strong player in his own right, but back surgery slowed his progression and he eventually gave up his pro career to caddie full time for Smith, whom he married in 2009. He calls her “Muff,” short for Muffin.
“I feel like it would be weird to have someone else caddie for me,” said Sarah Jane, “almost like I was cheating or something.”
Duane says it works because she’s “cruisy.”
Sarah Jane finished T-31 at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic in her 210th start on the LPGA, disappointing given that she began the final round only three back. She’ll return to the Australian Open on Feb. 15-18 after posting nine top-25 finishes in 2017.
The couple credits instructor Sean Foley for much of her recent rise, calling him a great teacher of life in general. While they’ve been together for years – with a short break during Foley’s hectic Tiger Woods period – he saw her compete in person for the first time at last November’s CME Group Tour Championship.
Sarah Jane admitted to Foley that she was nervous about him watching her work. So Foley wisely bailed to take a bathroom break when the shuttle headed to the first tee at Tiburon Golf Club. Sarah Jane felt relieved when she couldn’t find him in the gallery, and by the time she spotted him midway through the front nine, she was into the rhythm of her round. She opened with a 66 to lead the tournament.
“When he left (after Friday) it was like the wind fell out of our sails,” she said of the energy Foley brings.
There’s a freshness about the Smiths, a relatable quality that would make them appealing to a broad fan base. On the shuttle ride to Atlantis Resort on Tuesday, Sarah Jane pulled out her phone and showed pictures of the shiplap siding they’d put up in their new Orlando home. “Like Chip and Joanna (Gaines),” said Duane, referring to HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”
They closed on the house Feb. 28, Duane’s birthday, but spent only 10 weeks there last year. Next time they get a break, they’ll landscape the backyard.
Technically speaking, putting is what has elevated Smith’s game of late. Her new goal is to finish in the top 20 on the money list and, of course, win a tournament. Duane said his wife has never been a super confident person and was likely intimidated to start.
“She doesn’t seem that way anymore,” he said.
Two years ago Sarah Jane joined the LPGA’s board of directors as a player director. It’s an elected position, and she almost didn’t run because she had to give a speech.
“To some degree that thing that is stopping me from doing it,” she told Duane, “I feel like is the same thing that stops me from doing well in my career.”
She gave the speech, and interestingly, her best two years on tour have coincided with her time on the board.
Sarah Jane Smith, the golfer, doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. The fictional character from the long-running BBC series “Doctor Who” dominates a Google search of her name. A victory could change that, but even now she’s worth getting to know.
“It’s just our own little world out there,” Smith said.
But they’d be glad to welcome us in.