That a major doesn’t start until the Sunday before the back nine remains one of golf’s oldest clichés, but for Rory McIlroy it might never have felt so stunningly accurate. The Northern Irishman held a two-shot lead at the turn st andrews and the end of an eight-year great drought seemed to gain certainty with every step through the wind away from the clubhouse. Then, CameronSmith laid down a charge of such unrelenting brilliance that even a course as storied as this had no choice but to bow before him. After starting four strokes behind McIlroy’s lead, six birdies in the last nine holes secured the Australian his first major title with an Open-record low 20-under par.
This 150th Open Championship was a glorious truce in golf’s civil war – though not if rumors of Smith’s possible transfer to LIV Golf come to fruition – but it will be best remembered as another agonizing near miss for McIlroy, who so The last group next to Viktor Hovland showed great composure, only to be constantly betrayed by his putter. A round of 70 was hardly a meltdown, but it was the worst of those finishing on the front page of the leaderboard and he was even pushed down to second place in the end as Cameron Young capped a remarkable Open debut with an Eagle .
McIlroy’s disappointment will linger, but Smith’s back nine will go down as one of the best in Open history and the way he ended the win, fending off a road hole disaster and then making the final birdie, was a legend worthy . It only got more impressive when the 28-year-old grabbed it in the eye of a storm as all of St Andrews forced McIlroy to the finish line. “I thought the fans were great today,” McIlroy said afterwards. “I thought they were really, really good. Incredibly supported by me. I wish I could have given them a little more cheer. There is a worthy winner on the 18th green right now.”
One of the defining moments of this Open will remain McIlroy’s tip of the hat to Tiger Woods on Friday afternoon. It felt like the torch was being passed, but while Woods’ ice melted in tears on the Swilcan Bridge, it was his old reckless edge that McIlroy needed so badly. He’d stepped onto first tee with a laser-like focus that kept all nerves in check, but while Wood’s aura used to strike fear into the hearts of his opponents, McIlroy and Hovland shared a smile rather than a snarl, and there was no early dagger in what was supposedly a two-horse race.
Time would prove anything but it took a while for Smith’s rebellion to take shape. While McIlroy and Hovland both started with par hat-tricks and alternated between rattling putts through the break and then short dribbles, only Jordan Spieth had made a significant jump up the leaderboard. After eight shots behind, four birdies in seven holes were still not enough. Bryson DeChambeau’s 66 and Tommy Fleetwood’s 67 were always cases of too little, too late.
And so, as the friendly atmosphere of the final group shootout riddled with tension, it was Hovland whose pistol backfired first. A nervous three-putt gave credence to those who pointed out the Norwegian was more unpredictable in the majors despite his proven talent. His mistake gave McIlroy the absolute lead and the cheers echoed from the fourth green to the very tip of the Old Course, which meets the Eden Estuary.
At this point, McIlroy looked so confident and completely in control of his emotions. Its driver was like a controlled blast, just as deadly, but with no added safeguards that enabled it to attack almost any flag. A two-putt birdie on par 5 became a formality, but from then on the accuracy of McIlroy’s approach and putting began to falter. After another huge drive had him just 56 yards from the pin at six, he decided to putt all the way through the waves and up the steep ridge guarding the green. His ball crawled almost to the top, roaring up the last few steps through the crowd, but a 16-foot birdie putt dived low out of the hole. On the ninth, a shorter chance met the same fate.
Ahead of Sunday’s singles at the Ryder Cup last September, with Team USA already on course for a landslide win, Woods sent a message to Steve Stricker. The lyrics, read in the dressing room, read: “Step on their necks.” Perhaps that’s the kind of vulgar, hard-hitting attitude required to dominate such a posh game. McIlroy had his lead firmly in hand and made the turn in 35 to remain two shots clear but was still missing a decisive punch from a closed fist.
Then Smith attacked with all the power and dash McIlroy had been screaming for. You can trace the historic back nines that won this tournament like veins under the baked skin of its fairways. Even then, there are still few who could pump blood as fiercely as the five consecutive birdies Smith has accumulated. His approach play was exquisite and his putting conveyed all the smooth confidence that made him the 36-hole leader on Friday. When the Australian headed in in 14th place, he hadn’t grabbed the lead, but snatched it violently from McIlroy’s hands.
“I think it’s very easy to get defensive out there and hit it at 60, 70 feet and you can make pars all day but you’re not going to make birdies,” Smith said. “I think my mindset would have been a little different if I had been up front, especially in the back nine. My second shot of 13 was really when I thought we could win this thing.
McIlroy still had chances, but collective sighs around the green became painfully familiar after his putt died inches from the hole at 13 and another birdie chance on the par 5 begged Smith’s charge to finally be stopped. No St. Andrews Open is complete without a dramatic chapter at the road hole, and after pulling his approach, Smith had to putt around the cavernous pot bunker to stay 10 feet to salvage par. It couldn’t have been a bigger test of nerves, but Smith stayed incredibly cool as the ball rolled into the center of the hole. Just a few yards away, on almost exactly the same line, McIlroy’s birdie putt dived deep again and no amount of longing could shift the contours in his favor.
Smith entered the final tee knowing that a birdie would almost certainly be enough to seal it. In the end, it was the least that was required after Young’s eagle. But after driving to the front of the green, Smith refused to sway, and McIlroy had to take the biggest walk in golf while once again regretting what could have been.