Cameron Smith’s breakthrough, Rory McIlroy’s disappointment and more from an epic Open Championship at St. Andrews

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Australia’s Cameron Smith has finally got his big win. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy will again have to wait for his next.

Smith spoiled McIlroy’s party at the 150th edition of The Open at St Andrews on Sunday. After starting the final round 4 shots behind McIlroy and Norway’s Viktor Hovland, Smith had a sizzling back nine and made five straight birdies to card an 8-under 64 and win the Claret Jug.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Smith is only the third player to score 64 or more in the last round of The Open. Henrik Stenson (63 at Royal Troon in 2016) and Greg Norman (64 at Royal St George’s in 1993) were the others. Smith’s 20-under result also matches Stenson’s 72-hole total in 2016 for the lowest score in Open history.

PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young grabbed the 18th hole and finished second, 1 shot behind Smith. McIlroy, attempting to win his fifth major, finished 18-under in a disappointing third place. He has now played eight full seasons since winning his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship in Valhalla.

At least McIlroy can take comfort in knowing he didn’t lose that major; Smith won it with one of the best final rounds in major championship history. McIlroy clearly had the crowd behind him.

McIlroy didn’t play badly and still had a nice cushion going into the back nine. He just didn’t give himself enough birdie chances and could only beat Smith with pars.

Here are five observations from the finals at St Andrews:

Cameron Smith has arrived

Along with Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Hovland, Smith was among the best players in the world, arguably without a major league win before Sunday. In the official golf world rankings, he ranks sixth. He has now won six times on the PGA Tour and four more times around the world.

Smith had a chance to secure the 54-hole lead on Saturday, but his usually reliable putter let him down. Afterward, he told reporters, “The golf gods weren’t with me today.”

That certainly wasn’t the case with Smith on Sunday. He had reduced McIlroy’s lead to 3 shots when he made the turn. Remarkably, Smith was a shot ahead on the 14th hole. From the 10th he had five straight birdies.

Smith, one of the best putters in the world, dropped putts from 5 feet on #10, 16 feet on #11, 11 feet on #12, and 18 feet on #13. Then on a par-5 14. Smith almost made an 87-foot eagle putt and tapped in for birdie and a one-shot lead.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Smith is the only player in the last 20 years to birdie the first five holes of the back nine in the final round of a major.

Smith put the field away when he almost drove the green on the 18th hole. From 75 feet, he putted to 2 feet and made his eighth birdie of the round.

He became the first player since Dick Burton in 1939 to win his first major at St Andrews by overcoming a deficit as he progressed to the finals.

Smith appeared to be arriving at the Players in March when he won $3.6 million, the richest purse for a winner in PGA Tour history. He is only the fifth player to win both the Players and a Major in the same season, after Jack Nicklaus (1978), Hal Sutton (1983), Tiger Woods (2001) and Martin Kaymer (2014).

McIlroy’s disappointment

McIlroy has endured a lot of heartbreak since winning his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship in Valhalla. He had narrow chances at the Masters and The Open in 2018 and the US Open in Torrey Pines last year. It was the ninth time he had finished in the top five since his last win at a Major.

Sunday’s loss, which saw McIlroy lead by four shots at the start and three at the turn, could hurt the most.

“[I’m] obviously disappointed,” McIlroy said. “Yes, I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either. It’s just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I thought I had to do aside from taking advantage of the easier holes – around the turn…9, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies from good positions there it probably would have been a different story.

“But look, I got beaten by a better player this week. Par 20 under 20 for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive, especially today to go out and shoot 64 to get it done.”

Again, most of the galleries were behind McIlroy. Smith and everyone else probably felt like outsiders compared to him. But the Rory roar never came on Sunday.

Playing a group behind Smith, McIlroy birdied the par-4 10th to move to 18-under. He didn’t make another birdie the rest of the way.

McIlroy narrowly missed birdie putts from 14 feet on the 12th before almost sinking a 61-foot putt on the 13th. McIlroy didn’t capitalize on the par-5 14. His second shot from 248 yards was close to the green, so he putted 18 feet off the fairway. Another near-miss left him with a disappointing par. McIlroy also had close misses of 28 feet at No. 16 and 22 feet at No. 17.

“Yeah, I’m going to regret a couple of missed putts that slipped by,” McIlroy said. “But overall it was a good week. I can’t be too down because this year and this year is over. I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a question of knocking on the door over and over again, and eventually one will open.”

McIlroy finished in the top 10 in each of the four majors this season. He finished second at the Masters, eighth at the PGA Championship and fifth at the US Open.

“Yeah, of course, not just with his results this year, but he’s come very close this year and played really well,” said Hovland, who finished fourth with 14-under ties. “But at the end of the day he keeps playing the way he does, he’ll get one pretty soon I think at least. Still, yes, it’s tough. You have to end it.”

Golf’s next generation is good

Smith, 28, is the sixth consecutive major winner by a player in his 20s. Matt Fitzpatrick (27) won the US Open, Justin Thomas (29) won the PGA Championship and Scottie Scheffler (26) won the Masters. Last year Collin Morikawa (25) won The Open and Jon Rahm (27) the US Open.

Factor out Phil Mickelson’s unexpected win at the 2021 PGA Championship, where he became the oldest major champion at age 50, and that would be seven in a row. Hideki Matsuyama won the 2021 Masters at the age of 29.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, players in their 20s haven’t won six consecutive majors since 1921-1923, when Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Arthur Havers and Bobby Jones came together.

Cameron Young is real

With so much attention being paid to McIlroy and Woods, most of the week you barely noticed PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young was in the running. But the New York golfer shot under par on every round, including a 7-under 65 on Sunday. He had an eagle on the par 18 to finish solo second at 19 under.

After a tie for third place at the PGA Championship, Young is only the second player since Morikawa to finish in the top three in his debut at those events. Morikawa won the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park and the 2021 Open at Royal St. George’s.

“It probably hurts a little bit worse to miss a shot,” Young said. “If you lose by eight, you don’t care. But yes, I played well [on Sunday]. I would have signed up for 65 this morning. And watching Cameron shoot what he did was pretty amazing.

Is St Andrews too easy?

The R&A knew that St Andrews, the ‘home of golf’, would be vulnerable to advanced equipment and the world’s best players, especially when the winds weren’t strong off the North Sea.

The wind wasn’t blowing much the last two laps so the scores were very, very low. Smith’s 20-under total is the lowest for a St. Andrews Open. The average score was 71,619. There were 929 birdies and 29 eagles.

“I think we’re definitely hitting too far for the course, probably if I had to guess,” said Xander Schauffele. “Maybe it’s just too tight. I’m not sure to be completely honest.

The R&A stuck the pins in as best it could, but it didn’t seem to make all that much of a difference.

“The way they made it difficult was a bit difficult for me,” said Schauffele. “Some of those pins they tucked away — I mean if you’re on the right side you’re going to have 30ft, 40ft. But if you try to hit it close you get a little greedy like me [Saturday]there is no grass on some of these slopes.

“[Sunday] it was much softer. The ball somehow stayed on the ground. [Saturday] there was no friction. Almost felt like a USGA event 15 or 16.”

https://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/34258286/cameron-smith-breakthrough-rory-mcilroy-disappointment-more-epic-open-championship-st-andrews Cameron Smith’s breakthrough, Rory McIlroy’s disappointment and more from an epic Open Championship at St. Andrews

Emma Bowman

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