And then the plucky Australian with his magical putter ran off five straight birdies to take the lead, stared down a nervy putt around the edge of the nefarious Road Hole bunker to save par and finished with two putts from 80 feet for birdie for an 8-under 64.
So was his golf.
In the 29 previous times golf’s oldest championship was held at St. Andrews, no winner had ever closed with a 64. Smith finished at 20-under 268, a record score for the Old Course and matching the lowest score to par in any major.
McIlroy hit every green in regulation and two-putted all of them — two were birdies, the rest were pars — for a 70 that left him in third place and having to wait nearly nine months before he can try to end his drought in the majors that now is at eight full years.
It wasn’t enough, and neither was anything McIlroy could muster.
McIlroy couldn’t make a putt early. He couldn’t hit it close enough late. His last good chance was a 15-foot birdie attempt on the dangerous Road Hole at No. 17, and it narrowly missed to the left. McIlroy needed eagle to tie him, and his chip through the Valley of Sin had no chance.
Smith won for the third time this year, all on entirely different courses — the generous fairways of Kapalua, the visual intimidation of water on the TPC Sawgrass and the oldest links in the world with its double greens and pot bunkers.
He beat the No. 1 player in the world (Jon Rahm) at Kapalua. He beat the best field in golf at The Players Championship. And he had to overcome a four-shot deficit against a heavy crowd favorite to capture his first major.
Even with the silver claret jug in his hands, it was hard to believe.
“All the names on there, every player that’s been at the top of their game has won this championship,” Smith said. “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.”
That’s what McIlroy is now. He moved into the void left when Tiger Woods missed the cut in what might be his final Open at St. Andrews. He had support that carried him to the cusp of winning at the home of golf. “The Holy Grail,” McIlroy had called it earlier in the week.
He gave them little to cheer.
“The putter went cold on me,” McIlroy said. “When both Camerons — especially Smith — went on that run on the back nine, I had to dig deep to make birdies. And I just couldn’t.”
Smith is the first Australian to win the Open since Greg Norman in 1993 at Royal St. George’s. Norman was asked not to return this year — there was no indication he was coming — because of his Saudi-funded LIV Golf that has offered millions to attract players like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, major champions who finished in the top 10.
But this day belonged to Smith and that putter that answered every test.
McIlroy was playing controlled golf, his only birdie a two-putt from 18 feet on the par-5 fifth. Viktor Hovland, who started the final round tied with McIlroy, was never a factor. He didn’t make his first birdie until the 12th hole and closed with a 74.
That run by Smith on the back nine is now part of Open lore.
He hit a nifty pitch to 5 feet for birdie on the short 10th. He was bold to a back pin on the par-3 11th and holed a 15-foot birdie, and he birdied the next two holes from about that length. His fifth in a row was a putt from 90 feet on the par-5 14th, over a huge mound and down the slope to tap-in range that gave him the lead for the first time.
The Road Hole bunker was between him and the flag on the 17th. He used his putter to ride over the right edge of the bunker and onto the green, 10 feet away, and he poured in another putt, this one for par to stay in front.
Young had his chances in his Open debut. He left short a 6-foot putt with about a foot of break on the 15th. He came up short with a wedge on the next hole. He drilled his drive and approach to the 17th, only to leave another birdie chance short.
He finally delivered, but all that got him was a 65 and the silver medal. In two majors this year, the PGA Tour rookie missed a playoff by one shot at the PGA Championship and made his best putt too late at St. Andrews.
Smith made his last birdie and the engraver went to work on the claret jug, a prize first awarded to the 1873 champion at St. Andrews. There’s a lot of history around this gray, old town, and Smith became part of it in a big way.
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