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Smith punishes cautious McIlroy with devastating display in an Open for the ages

Cameron Smith's ruthless run saw the Australian leapfrog crowd favourite Rory McIlroy and win an Open befitting of the occasion
 

We demanded something special. A final round for the ages. We asked for a drama befitting of the 150th playing of The Open.

We got what we wanted. But not the coronation for which much of St Andrews might have hoped.

Rory McIlroy said he dreamed of winning the Claret Jug at the Home of Golf. Cameron Smith shook him awake and snatched it from right under his nose.

The Australian produced a back nine that will be replayed forever. What a tribute it was to this magnificent championship.

Trailing McIlroy by two at the turn, Smith found magic in his clubs – there can be no other explanation. Five birdies in a row, in an electric spell spanning the 10th to the 14th, powered him to the front.

Two nerveless putts on the Road Hole, the last drained for a pressure-packed par, was followed by the simplest of tap-in birdies at the last.

Just look at those numbers. A closing 30, a second 64 of the week, and a 20-under total that broke Tiger Woods’ 2000 St Andrews scoring record.

Like a held-up racehorse, he’d found the winning post right when it mattered.

While McIlroy concentrated on process, on discipline, on playing the percentages, Smith unleashed a devastating display of artistry.

Having come so close at the Masters, and now clutching the game’s most famous prize, an emotional Smith held back tears – unable to quite believe what he had accomplished.

“What a week,” he said. “I’m going to fall apart here, I know.

“It is just unreal. This place is so cool and to have the 150th Open here and to walk away with the win is something that I think I have just dreamed of.”

Joining the legends of the game – Seve, Tiger, Jack – to have won at the sport’s hallowed ground, he added: “To look at those names on this trophy and then to add mine, I am just lost for words.

“I am definitely going to find out how many beers fit into this thing, for sure!”

We’d arrived expecting a shootout between McIlroy and Viktor Hovland – a duel to rival that of Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

The Norwegian, though, fell behind early and never looked like outfoxing his playing partner.

There was the crackle of emotion in the air. It came from us, a home crowd willing McIlroy over the line. Yet while we exhorted, the man himself was almost robotic.

He was plotting his way round St Andrews like a mathematician. Cautiously and methodically. His strategy was the same as it had been all week – a plan which had brought him to the brink of a fifth major title: keep it out of the bunkers, don’t make any silly errors, and take advantage where the golf course allowed.

A birdie at the 5th and another at the short 10th – thanks to an outstandingly judged first putt from 126 feet – pushed him a couple clear.

But as Smith then unleashed everything in pursuit, McIlroy’s putter went cold and a crucial birdie effort at the 17th just stayed wide.

Chipping in from the Valley of Sin to force a play-off never looked likely. He walked off to the sound of a pin drop.

“Yeah, I’ll rue a few missed sort of putts that slid by. But it’s been a good week overall. I can’t be too despondent because of how this year’s went and this year’s going,” he said.

“I’ll be okay. At the end of the day, it’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities.”

Nor did he even have the crumb of finishing runner-up. Cameron Young, playing alongside Smith, was similarly sensational on the back-nine – including an eagle on the last to post 65 and 19-under.

McIlroy’s disappointment will run deep, whatever he feels right now. But what did we want for this milestone Open? We wanted greatness, and Smith produced it in spades.

We couldn’t have asked for more.


Visit our dedicated Open website for more from golf’s oldest major


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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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