Nobody has a divine right to earthly wares, least of all the Claret Jug. It is hard won, and easily lost. Where it had seemed Rory McIlroy’s destiny to again lift the famous trophy in this 150th Open Championship on the Old Course, the Home of Golf, it was in fact Cameron Smith’s time to add his name and claim a place in history.
On a dry day and just a gentle breeze caressing the old links, ideal conditions for the final round, Smith – the fifth Australian to win – stole the show: a superbly-crafted final round of 64 by Smith for a total of 20-under-par 268 gave him a one stroke winning margin over Cameron Young, with Rory McIlroy, after a final round 70, a shot further back in third.
McIlroy had started the round alongside Viktor Hovland with a four-stroke lead over the two Camerons. And while Hovland slipped away over the front nine, the Northern Irishman managed to retain leadership despite managing only one birdie, on the fifth, to turn in 35 strokes. Worrying for him, however, was the fact that a number of birdie chances – from six feet on the third, from 15 feet on the sixth and eight feet on the ninth – all missed the cup.
And the putter would remain cold for McIlroy on the homeward run, where a birdie on the 10th – two putting from 126 feet after driving the green on the Par 4 – would be his only reward for finding all 18 greens in regulation.
“I’ll rue a few missed putts that slid by,” conceded McIlroy afterwards, adding: “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 capitalising on the easier holes around the turn – nine, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies there from good positions it probably would have been a different story.”
Smith and Young had reached the turn in 34 each, edging only marginally closer to McIlroy. And, then, all changed utterly. Smith’s putter caught fire and, one hole after another, he got birdie opportunities and executed each one. A birdie from five feet on the 10th. One from 16 feet on the 11th. Another from 11 feet on the 12th. An 18-footer on the 13th. Then a five-footer on the 14th. Five-in-a-row, moving from 14-under to 19-under and into the outright lead.
There would be one more, on the 18th hole, in front of the packed grandstands. But in its own way it was the par save on the Road Hole – the 17th – that was the winning and losing of the championship.
The 500 yards par 4 had played as the toughest hole of the championship, and Smith’s tee shot found the fairway but in a poor lie. His approach from 158 yards was never set to find the putting surface, curling left to find a resting place short of the bunker. It was a break, kind of, for Smith was then faced with a shot around the trap’s wicked undulations, almost akin to a wall of death.
Out came the most trusted club in Smith’s bag, the putter. And he played it beautifully, skirting the bunker and allowing the undulations to firstly take the ball one way and then on to the putting green so that it came to rest 10 feet from the flag.
Of the approach, the putt and then the successful conversion for par, Smith later explained: “That second shot on 17, it’s just really an awkward shot, especially where I was. I kind of had to draw a 9-iron in there. You’re only trying to get it to 40 or 50 feet anyway. I just didn’t quite commit to the shape I wanted to hit and got it a little bit toey and turned over a touch more than I would have liked.
“Then the putt next to the green. I mean, I was just trying to get it inside 15 feet, and the putter felt really good all day. I knew if I could get it somewhere in there that I’d be able to give it a pretty good run.”
The birdie on the 18th was needed as Young – who’d missed a 15 footer for a birdie on the 17th after a tremendous approach shot – then almost grandstanded him with a brilliant eagle two to close. That eagle moved the American up to second spot.
But, behind them, in the last pairing, McIlroy – who had missed a 15 feet birdie putt of his own on the 17th – still had a chance, a slim one, of joining Smith on 20-under if he managed an eagle. His tee shot, however, came up 20 yards short of the green.
“It was a difficult chip. I mean, I thought it was either hole it or nothing really. I wasn’t really trying to go for the T2 with Cameron Young at that point,” said McIlroy of his all-or-nothing bid to hole out. He gave it a go, but it ran past the hole and that was that. Smith’s coronation as champion was assured.