ANDREWS, Scotland – At the outset of Sunday, the fisherman in Cameron Smith must have thought he had to capture a Great White if he were to conquer the Old Course at St. Andrews to win the 150th playing of the Open Championship.
And it wasn’t just any Great White frightening the field. It was Rory McIlroy, the undisputed fan favorite who seemingly had all of this ancient village willing him on to the Claret Jug. In “Jaws” terms, McIlroy was a 30 footer and three tons of him who had kept most all of his peers on edge the first three days, ending the third round as a co-leader with Viktor Hovland and four shots clear of the field. .
Smith, on the other hand, was the guy with the scraggy mullet who hails from Down Under and wasn’t frightening anyone despite a resume that included victory in The Players. He was four strokes back of the lead, after all, and with McIlroy in full flight after rounds of 66-68-66, Smith’s chances, like his physique, were slim.
But the man who prefers a rod and reel in his hands instead of a 9-iron unleashed the most powerful weapon of the day – his putter. And despite the lion’s share of the massive galleries in McIlroy’s corner, Smith flipped the script and, 50 years after fellow Aussie Ken Nagle toppled fan favorite Arnold Palmer to win the Open at the Home of Golf in its 100th edition, got the better of McIlroy and all the rest by one shot to add a Claret Jug to his mantle.
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“I feel like I can breathe,” Smith said. “These last four or five holes aren’t easy around here, especially with the wind up off the left. Just stuck to what I was doing. Just really proud of how I kind of knuckled down today and managed to get it done.
“To win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career. To do it around St Andrews, I think is just unbelievable.
“This place is so cool. I love the golf course. I love the town. ”
Smith came home with birdies from 5 feet on the 10th, 20 feet on the 11th, 12 feet on the 12th, 18 feet on the 13th and a tap-in for a two-putt on the 14th from more than 100 feet. The five consecutive birdies reeled in McIlroy and gave Smith the lead.
His biggest putt, however, came on the par-4 17th, the Road Hole, the toughest course. After his approach came up short of the Road Hole Bunker, Smith putted around the hazard to 10 feet. And then buried the putt for par to maintain his lead.
His next huge putts came about on the 72nd hole. Smith drove the green and from 80 feet nestled his first putt to three feet. But playing partner Cameron Young had driven the green and then knocked in a 15-footer for eagle to tie Smith if only for a moment. Smith calmly stepped into his putt and knocked it in to win his first major championship.
“I spent a little bit of time on the green last night (after shooting 73), and just really wanted to see a few putts go in,” he said. “It turned out it was a pretty good thing to do.”
Smith finished with an 8-under-par 64 to shoot 20-under 268, which broke Tiger Woods ’record low score in relation to par in an Open at St. Louis. Andrews by one stroke. Smith is the only player to shoot four rounds in the 60s in the same year (2020 Masters when he finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson). Smith, who also shot 64 in the second round, joined Jack Nicklaus (1978) as the only two to win The Players and the Open in the same year. He also became the fifth Australian to win the Open and the 28-year-old now has six PGA Tour titles and two Australian PGA Championships on the DP World Tour.
“He’s tough, and he’s owned his game,” Aussie fellow Adam Scott said of Smith. “He’s learned how to play golf very well very quickly. I think his mind is a big asset, as is his putter. ”
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Young, who likely will be the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and was ranked in the 500s early last summer, closed with a 65 to finish at 19 under. He also contended into the late stages of the PGA Championship earlier this year.
“It probably hurts a little worse to come up one shot short,” Young said. “If you lose by eight you don’t really care. I played well today. I would have signed up for 65 this morning. And to watch Cameron shoot what he did, it was pretty amazing.
“He is one of the very, very best players in the world.”
As for McIlroy, this loss will sting. He had said winning an Open at St. Andrews would be his Holy Grail. He was looking to end a major championship drought of eight years. He led by two with eight holes to play. And the thunderous roars filled his heart. But McIlroy didn’t make a birdie over his last eight holes and shot 70 to finish in third at 18 under. He hurt himself by not making birdies on the 7th, 9th, 12th and 14th holes, all getable. And he missed a birdie by an eyelash from 16 feet on the 17th and remains stuck on four majors.
His immense popularity could be seen and heard during a Sunday morning stroll about this timeworn, spiritual village, where churches older than the United States continue to hold services. On welcoming signs in front of numerous pubs and restaurants and from the words of elders outside of houses of worship, the message was clear.
“Pray for Rory.”
“Don’t forget to say a prayer for Rory.”
“Children, put your hands together and send comfort to Rory in a prayer.”
The prayers went unanswered.
“Disappointed obviously. I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either, ”McIlroy said. “It’s just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I felt like I needed to just apart from capitalizing on the easier holes. If I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story.
“But look, I got beaten by a better player this week. Twenty-under par for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive playing, especially to go out and shoot 64 today to get it done. I’ll rue a few missed sort of putts that slid by. But it’s been a good week overall. I can’t be too despondent because of how this year went and this year going. I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keeping knocking on the door.
“At the end of the day, it’s not life or death.”
In a tie for fourth at 14 under were Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Hovland (74). Brian Harman rushed home with a 66 to move into a tie for sixth at 13 under with Dustin Johnson, who shot 69. At 12 under were 2017 Open champion Jordan Spieth (68), Patrick Cantlay (68) and Bryson DeChambeau (66).
Smith has steadily ascended into the ranks of elite the past few years, his hard work and dedication paying off. He will move into the top 5 in the official world golf rankings.
“I don’t think I’ve changed a lot mentally. I think sometimes you get away from what you’re doing, and I think it’s just a thing of just getting back to what you know and what you know works, ”he said. “I’ve definitely been on that track a few times in my career. But I think it’s just, honestly, belief. The Players at the start of the year, with the best course in golf, to go away with the win was a really big confidence booster. I knew it wasn’t going to be too long before I got one of these. I’ve knocked on the door, maybe one too many times now.
“So it’s nice to get it done.”
Smith said he’d likely pour two beers into the Claret Jug for a celebratory drink, then joked he’d have “20 Claret Jugs” tonight. Instead, he said he’d be in bed by 11, the long week leaving him in need of sleep and rest.
The only glitch in the week came before the week started – his father, Des, decided at the last minute he didn’t want to make the trip over the pond, a journey to spend just one week in one place being too much.
“He’s definitely kicking himself now,” Smith said with a smile. “I really wish he was here, too. It would have been such a cool week, even without this, to be at the Home of Golf. Dad loves his golf as well. It would have been awesome. ”
Still turned out pretty good.