It will come as little consolation to Rory McIlroy that Cameron Smith spent years riding a major championship final to claim the 150th Open. McIlroy found himself near the Valley of Sin, wedge in hand, and had to hole out for a two to join Smith in a playoff. The audience spontaneously roared in vain hope of a sporting fairy tale. How did it come to this?
There was no miracle moment. McIlroy’s waiting for a fifth major success will resound in 2023. Salt was rubbed into McIlroy’s wounds by the fact that he didn’t even finish second here. A 72nd-hole eagle from Cameron Young, who enjoyed an excellent Open debut, earned him second place. Smith’s 20 under par defeated Young by one and a sad but magnanimous McIlroy by two.
It’s hard to say that McIlroy did a lot wrong during the fourth round, except maybe not taking advantage of opportunities properly. For example, he will be stung for not making a birdie on the 9th or 14th. This was the wrong time for McIlroy to deliver for the first time a St Andrews Open round that wasn’t in the 60’s. It was just that 70, two under par, wasn’t enough to keep up with the intrepid Smith. The Australian’s back nine out of 30 is the lowest score on a Sunday inner half by a champion in Open history.
The 28-year-old is no longer one of the best golfers of this generation to never win a major. He played with a fearless day four that makes him the worthy champion of such a milestone. Smith, who won the Players Championship in March, is enjoying the time of his life.
With McIlroy and Viktor Hovland in the last group, it was the Norwegian who blinked first. Hovland three put in 4th, which put McIlroy in a one-shot lead. McIlroy easily birdied the par-five 5th to double his advantage.
Hovland played hesitantly. The pressure on McIlroy suddenly came from elsewhere. Smith birdied the 10th and 11th to go inside one. Almost immediately, McIlroy left a 126-foot putt on the 10th within reach of the kick-in. The two-stroke margin for error was reinstated, with McIlroy now 18 under. Smith punched back by taking another shot on the 12th. Smith, now five under for his round, posed a serious threat.
That challenge from the Brisbane native intensified with a fourth birdie in a row, this time from 15ft. The lead was now shared. Smith was inspired, McIlroy was aware of what was happening in the group in front of him. Smith’s 19 under played McIlroy’s 18 under while the former birdied on the 14th.
Smith, it seemed incredible to remember, had started the day four shots adrift from McIlroy and Hovland. A 74 from Hovland meant he was fourth with Tommy Fleetwood, who signed off with a 67.
Young, meanwhile, cut a figure of frustration despite signing for a 65. “It probably hurts a little worse to come up one shot short,” he said. “If you lose by eight, you don’t really care.” The 25-year-old’s curious year has seen two missed cuts, a tie for third and a second.
Smith cut off his drive right off the 15th, but was able to save par from a favorable rough lay. McIlroy had to make short work of the 14th par-five, but failed after failing to reach the green in two. Smith scored a straight par of two putts on the 16th and refused to wobble on the iconic Road Hole, despite missing the green on his approach. McIlroy’s last realistic hope came at that penultimate hole after a majestic iron up to 18ft. As the birdie putt dribbled past, Smith had one hand and four fingers on the Claret Jug.
Brian Harman and Dustin Johnson were sixth at minus 13. Bryson DeChambeau joined Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth one shot further back. Adam Scott’s 71 left him 10 adrift behind Smith, but there were commendations for Smith. “He’s tough and he’s got his game on quickly,” Scott said of his compatriot. “He learned to play golf very quickly. I think his mind is a great asset as is his putter. “I don’t know if you can say it was inevitable that he would get an opportunity like this, but based on talent? Yes.”
Filippo Celli, the 21-year-old Italian, took low amateur honors at five under. After scoring three shots, LIV rebel Sergio García made it clear he hadn’t really enjoyed his week. The Open back in St Andrews in 2030 seems like a bridge too far from García. “Probably tough,” he said of a performance in eight years. “And the way everyone reacts to us is probably even harsher. Things come to an end. It is what it is.”
Speaking to media from his home country, the Spaniard added that he would be waiving the DP World, formerly the European Tour, which will exclude him from future Ryder Cups. García feels he has been victimized in Europe after signing up for the LIV Series. Feverish speculation continues to associate Henrik Stenson, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, with that controversial domain. With Greg Norman fronting the Saudi-backed operation, against which McIlroy is such a strong opponent, there is a joke somewhere about Australians causing the Northern Irishman grief. Now might not be the time to tell.