There’s a famous saying, crafted in the early 1900s by an author whose name has since been lost to time, that golf is a good walk spoiled: a lousy game to play if you’re not a fan of it, and an endeavor mentally taxing enough to bring you to your knees even if you are. But Sunday, it wasn’t just a good walk that was spoiled, but rather, a good story.
Entering the final round of the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy stood alone with the weight of expectation—and of hope. His hope, surely, was that he would earn his fifth career major win, and first in eight grueling years, and do so at “the home of golf.” But it was also the hope of millions of fans around the world that their favorite player—the guy once, and perhaps still, expected to succeed Tiger Woods as the face of the sport—would join the ranks of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson and regain the form and finishing instinct he’s lacked since the 2014 PGA Championship.
He was in prime position to do it as the co-leader heading into Sunday. McIlroy stepped to the first tee tied with Viktor Hovland at 16 under par, four strokes clear of the next closest competitors. He had the full support of the crowd, who cheered him more this week than perhaps anyone besides Woods. And most importantly, his game looked ready to carry him: At previous majors this year, he’d finished second, eighth, and tied for fifth, and he’d shot in the 60s each of the first three days at the Open.
But Sunday, that weight came for him again. Instead of taking risks and playing boldly as he’d done all week, McIlroy struggled to make any sort of splash. At points when he’d made a miraculous chip-in from the bunker or buried lengthy putts in early rounds, in the final day there were two-putts early and often (he finished the day minus-2.18 in strokes gained putting). And though none of that necessarily led to his undoing—texting with NBC Sports’ John Wood on Saturday night, Woods said that if he was in McIlroy’s position, he would aim to finish 19-under par while avoiding bunkers and three-putts—it wasn’t enough. Not when Cameron Smith, a man known as much for his mullet-and-wispy-mustache combo as his putter, was just ahead lighting the Old Course on fire.
All week—all of his career, really—Smith held zero regard for story line, for what he or anyone else was “supposed” to do. He stormed out of the gate Thursday to shoot 67. Then followed that up Friday with a ridiculous 64, featuring five birdies on the front nine and a massive eagle on no. 14 thanks to a 295-yard approach shot and a 64-foot made putt.
He stepped on his own story line Saturday as he and Cameron Young, playing in the day’s final group, failed to go low and lost their place to McIlroy and Hovland. (Here I’m contractually obligated to mention the bonkers baseball-swing shot Smith hit at no. 13, while standing inside a bunker, which ultimately led to a double-bogey.) And Sunday, in an all-time showing of DGAF energy, he devoured McIlroy’s neatly packaged win by shooting another 64, tied for the second-lowest final-round score by a winner in Open Championship history.
Things started slow for Smith on Sunday: a birdie on 2, followed by a birdie on 5 that would help him make the turn three shots behind McIlroy. But then the putts started flowing like Smith’s hair in the St. Andrews wind.
While McIlroy had just one birdie on the back, Smith opened with back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back birdies, the longest streak in the final round of the Open in 21 years. Within a single hour, he raised his win probability from just over 6 percent to nearly 56 percent.
In one hour, Cam Smith took his win probability from 6.1% to 55.9% pic.twitter.com/hxca0D9X3F— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) July 17, 2022
He made every big shot imaginable, one-putting the 10th, 11th, 13th, and 14th holes during that birdie barrage. And when he walked up to the 17th tee, he held a one-shot lead over McIlroy and a two-shot lead over his playing partner, Young.
The Road Hole was where it all could have come crashing down, as it has so many times before. The testy 17th leaves players with almost too many options at their disposal and half of them can land you in exquisite amounts of trouble. Smith’s second shot there Sunday nearly did just that, settling in just behind the hole’s massive greenside bunker and leaving him just one choice to save par: putting around the bunker’s lip and hoping he’d end up close enough to get up and down. And sure enough, in one of his final magic acts of the weekend, Smith did exactly what he had to do: skirting the bunker, leaving the ball 10 feet away from the hole, and slamming home a putt.
With his closing birdie on no. 18, which ended up being necessary after Young made an eagle to tie Smith at 19-under, Smith finished the back nine in 6-under par, matching McIlroy in 2010 as the only players to go that low at a St. Andrews Open.
Though McIlroy’s Sunday wasn’t up to the level of his previous rounds, he didn’t really lose this Open. He became the first player in major championship history to enter a final round with the lead, hit every green in regulation and not make it out with a win. He came within a couple of inches of getting to 19-under multiple times, which is exactly what Woods said he would have aimed to do in his situation. But, obviously, McIlroy didn’t need another strong showing—he needed a win. And that’s the problem.
In a post-round interview with NBC, McIlroy put on a brave face. He said he had a great opportunity that he just didn’t take advantage of; he lamented his inability to make putts when he needed to and congratulated Smith, who he said was the overall better player on the day.
But when asked about becoming an honorary member of the R&A earlier this week and what his biggest takeaway would be from yet another disappointment, the armor fell just a bit. There was a sigh, a pause, a classic McIlroy moment of reflection. “Just that I know that I can do it,” Rory responded. “I love this golf course. I play well here. The last two Opens I’ve played here I finished third both times. It’s coming. … I just need to stay patient and keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open for me again.”
As McIlroy spoke, R&A members were busy transforming the green behind him for yet another trophy ceremony that wouldn’t include him, ready to hand the gleaming Claret Jug to a golfer who’d snatched a championship from McIlroy by doing exactly what he needed to do.
Cam Smith absolutely won this tournament. He more than earned his first major title, putting in an all-time performance in a setting where almost every person in the stands was rooting for the other guy. The 28-year-old will be a contender in many majors to come, especially April’s Masters tournament, where he’s finished T5, T2, T10, and T3 within the past five tournaments. But while his walk is just beginning, McIlroy let his get spoiled once again. And for another eight months, he and his fans are left to hope, and wait.