MELBOURNE (Reuters) - British Open champion Cameron Smith is savouring a warm homecoming on his long-awaited return to Australia where his participation in the Saudi-backed LIV series has done little to dent his popularity.
Back home after three COVID-interrupted years, Smith was given the keys to the city in his native Brisbane on Tuesday, becoming the first golfer among 52 people to receive the honour.
"Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd get the keys to the city," the mullet-haired 29-year-old told reporters.
"I thought it was for important people, not golfers."
Australia's strict COVID-19 quarantine and border controls were in place until late-2021, delaying Smith and other top local golfers from returning home earlier.
Though Smith battled homesickness, the time away proved a blessing in disguise as he spent his off-season in the United States getting fit in the gym ahead of the most fruitful year of his career in 2022.
Coming home a major winner has made his return even sweeter, with plenty of beers and tears at family gatherings.
Like former world number one Adam Scott, who brought the Masters trophy home after becoming Australia's first winner of the major in 2013, Smith has brought the Claret Jug with him.
Smith's career was yet to take off when he joined a line "about a K (kilometre) long" to get an autograph from Scott in the lead-up to the 2013 Australian PGA Championship at Royal Pines on the Gold Coast.
"He had the green jacket on down at Royal Pines," said Smith.
"That was pretty cool to see."
Nine years later, the pair will tee off at the same tournament at Royal Queensland on Thursday, with Smith, who won the title back-to-back in 2017-18, now the headline act.
Scott, the 2013 and 2019 winner, will also be bidding for a third title at the event.
'SEEN A GHOST'
Smith said he was overwhelmed by the joy and emotion from compatriots when he showed off the Claret Jug, posing for 'selfies' with fans with the trophy at Brisbane airport straight after touching down.
"It's insane. It's like they've seen a ghost the first time they've seen it," he added.
"I don't want to give it back. I want to keep hanging onto it."
Though the reception from fans has been warm, Smith's decision to sign with LIV for a reported $150 million a few months ago was criticised by some Australian media pundits and former players.
Like other LIV players, Smith is now barred from competing on the major U.S. PGA and European DP World Tours.
The Australian Tour, however, has welcomed Smith to play local events.
Australia will host a LIV event next April in Adelaide, with the South Australia state government throwing its weight behind the series.
Smith, who is close friends with LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, said he would like another event in Queensland.
"Anywhere in Australia at the moment, I think it's going to be well-received," he said.
"The welcoming of LIV golf has been really positive so I can't wait for Adelaide."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)