It will be of scant consolation to Rory McIlroy that Cameron Smith produced a major championship final round for the ages to claim the 150th Open. McIlroy found himself standing short of the Valley of Sin, wedge in hand, needing to hole out for a two to join Smith in a playoff. The crowd offered an impromptu roar in vain hope of sporting fairytale. How had it come to this?
There was to be no miracle moment. McIlroy’s wait for a fifth major success will rumble into 2023. Salt was rubbed into McIlroy’s wounds by the fact he did not even finish second here. A 72nd-hole eagle from Cameron Young, who enjoyed an outstanding Open debut, afforded him the runner-up spot. Smith’s 20 under par saw off Young by one and a rueful but magnanimous McIlroy by two.
It is difficult to state McIlroy did much wrong during round four, save perhaps not capitalise appropriately on opportunity. He will be stung, for example, by failure to birdie the 9th or 14th. This was the wrong time for McIlroy to deliver a St Andrews Open round not in the 60s for the first time. It was just that 70, two under par, was insufficient to keep pace with the unflinching Smith. The Australian’s back nine of 30 is the lowest score on a Sunday inward half by any champion in Open history.
The 28-year-old is no longer one of the finest golfers of this generation never to win a major. He played with a day-four fearlessness that renders him the worthy champion of such a landmark event. Smith, who won the Players Championship in March, is enjoying the time of his life.
With McIlroy and Viktor Hovland in the final group, it was the Norwegian who blinked first. Hovland three putted the 4th, which edged McIlroy into a one-shot lead. McIlroy comfortably birdied the par-five 5th to double his advantage.
Hovland was playing tentatively. Pressure on McIlroy suddenly arrived from elsewhere. Smith birdied the 10th and 11th to move within one. Almost immediately McIlroy left a 126ft putt on the 10th within kick-in range. The two-stroke margin for error was restored, with McIlroy now 18 under. Smith jabbed back by picking up another shot at the 12th. Smith, now five under for his round, was posing a serious threat.
That challenge by the Brisbane native intensified with a fourth birdie in a row, this time from 15ft. The lead was now shared. Smith was inspired, McIlroy aware of what was happening in the group ahead. Smith’s 19 under played McIlroy’s 18 under as the former birdied the 14th.
Smith, it seemed incredible to recall, had started the day four shots adrift of McIlroy and Hovland. A 74 from Hovland meant he tied 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 major year has seen two missed cuts, a tied third and a second.
Smith chopped his drive right from the 15th but was able to rescue par from a favourable lie in the rough. McIlroy needed to make short work of the par-five 14th but could not after failing to reach the green in two. Smith recorded a straightforward, two-putt par at the 16th and refused to wobble at the iconic Road Hole despite missing the green with his approach. McIlroy’s last realistic hope came at that penultimate hole following a majestic iron to 18ft. As the birdie putt dribbled past, Smith had one hand and four fingers on the Claret Jug.
Brian Harman and Dustin Johnson tied sixth at minus 13. Bryson DeChambeau joined Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth one shot further back. Adam Scott’s 71 left him 10 adrift of Smith but there were words of praise for Smith. “He’s tough and he has owned his game quickly,” Scott said of his fellow Australian. “He has learned how to play golf very well, very quickly. I think his mind is a big asset, as is his putter. “I don’t know if you can say it was inevitable he would have an opportunity such as this but on the basis of talent? Yes.”
Filippo Celli, the 21-year-old Italian, secured low amateur honours at five under. After finishing three shots shy of that tally, the LIV rebel Sergio García made plain he had not enjoyed his week particularly much. The Open back at St Andrews in 2030 looks a bridge too far from García. “Probably tough,” he said of an appearance in eight years’ time. “And the way everyone is reacting to us, probably even tougher. Things come to an end. It’s the way it is.”
Speaking to media from his homeland, the Spaniard added he would be stepping away from the DP World, formerly European, Tour, which will exclude him from future Ryder Cups. García feels he has been victimised in Europe after signing up for the LIV Series. Fevered speculation continues to link Henrik Stenson, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, with that controversial domain. With Greg Norman fronting the Saudi Arabian‑backed operation, to which McIlroy sits in such stark opposition, there is a joke somewhere about Australians causing grief to the Northern Irishman. Now just may not be the time to tell it.