McIlroy left to wonder what could have been as Smith’s red hot putter wins The Open

The Australian’s homeward 30 was the lowest back nine of a final round in Major history

The sound of the bagpipes drifted down from the town, a plaintive celebratory tune for one; a requiem for all others. On a day of the final round of the 150th Open which started with Peter Thomson’s son scattering the late five-time champion’s ashes on the rear corner of the 18th green on the Old Course, it finished with another Australian laying claim to the famed Claret Jug.

Cameron Smith – he of the distinctive mullet hairstyle – brought creativity and brilliance on the greens with a putter that obeyed all commands to post a stunning final round 64 for a winning total of 20-under-par 268, for a one stroke winning margin over American Cameron Young whose eagle two on the last hole didn’t manage to steal any of the Aussie’s thunder.

The man who ultimately finished in third place probably had more of a sense that this was the one that had got away, slipping through his fingers as it were. Rory McIlroy had started the final round with one hand on the trophy and, halfway through his round, brought a three-stroke lead over Smith into the homeward journey over the moonscape terrain of the back nine.

And on that land of undulating dunes and gorse and wispy rough interspersed with deep bunkers, Smith emerged as McIlroy’s main rival. A run of birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie – yes, five in a row – from the 10th brought Smith from the posse to the front of proceedings; and, while his putter grew hotter and hotter, McIlroy’s remained as cold as ice. Smith needed just 29 putts in his final round, McIlroy – who found every green inregulation – took 36. It was the difference, and more.

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McIlroy, looking for his fifth career Major title, and first since lifting the US PGA in 2014, instead saw his winless drought extend to another year.

“At the end of the day it’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open championship and other chances to win Majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities,” said the Northern Irishman, who also saw Smith leapfrog him in the world rankings to number two.

Still, it is a year in the Majors that McIlroy will reflect on and wonder what might have been. He backed his way to a runner-up finish in the Masters; led only to finish up in eighth in the US PGA; and was fifth in the US Open. Now he can add a third-place finish in the Open.

“I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position, keep putting myself in there. And whenever you put yourself in that shining light you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures. Today is one of those times. But I just have to dust myself off and come again, and keep working hard and keep believing,” said a stoical McIlroy.

Planning to take a three-week break before returning to competitive play at the FedEx Cup playoffs, McIlroy added: “I’ve got a bit of time to rest and recover and try to take the positives, learn from the negatives, and move on. I’m playing well. Again, it’s one of the best seasons I’ve had in a long time. I want to finish the season off well. I want to finish the season off right. There’s still some golf to play. Major season is over, unfortunately, but I still feel like there’s a little bit to play for.”

McIlroy – who had gone into the final round tied for the lead with Viktor Hovland and four strokes clear of Smith and Young – admitted he had allowed himself to dream of having his name again engraved on the trophy, of winning.

“I’m only human. I’m not a robot. Of course you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it. My hotel room is directly opposite the big yellow board on 18 there right of the first (hole). And every time I go out I’m trying to envision McIlroy as the top name on that leaderboard and how did that feel?

“At the start of the day it was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow it won’t be. You’ve got to let yourself dream. You’ve got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like.”

Smith collected a payday of €2.5 million for his breakthrough Major win, adding the title to The Players he won earlier this season. His score equalled the lowest to par in the championship’s history and his homeward 30 was the lowest back nine of a final round in Major history. In winning Smith became the fifth Australian to get their name engraved on the Claret Jug.

“I think just in general, all the names on there, every player that’s been at the top of their game has won this championship. It’s pretty cool to be on there. It really hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t think it will for a few weeks. Yeah, it’s just unreal,” said Smith, who – apart from all the birdies, eight in total – made a spectacular par save on the 17th, where he used his putter for his ball to skirt around the Road Hole bunker, which kept him en route to victory.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times