ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — With Tiger Woods making an early and emotional start Friday at St. Andrews, Cameron Smith can only wonder if the 150th Open will be his arrival as an undisputed elite player.
Smith has already won the Players Championship this year and moved up to No. 3 in the world. His 8-under 64 at the Open gave him his first major tournament lead, by 2 shots over PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young. Rory McIlroy was hiding another blow behind.
“It’s obviously a really good place to be,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve been to this place a lot over the past two years, and things haven’t quite gone my way yet.”
Young overcame a few errors and closed with a birdie for a 69, putting him in the final group with Smith going into the weekend.
McIlroy received one of the loudest cheers – for a shot, not a goodbye – with his 25-foot birdie over the tricky Road Hole on the 17th. He missed a birdie opportunity on the 18th. Still, it was important for him to back up a strong start (66) with a strong lap (69).
He was tied with Viktor Hovland, who delivered his own thrill as he drilled 139 yards for the eagle on the par-4 15th hole and finished with a birdie for a 66.
Smith was 13-under 131, the lowest 36-hole score at the St. Andrews Open.
Even a weekend without Woods, who missed the cut after carding a 3 of 75, is set up for big theatre.
Dustin Johnson, who already has a Masters green jacket and a US Open title at Oakmont, played early in the best conditions of the week – light rain that extinguished some of the Old Course’s fire, then a warming sun – for a 67. He was 4 strokes behind. Close behind was Masters champion Scottie Scheffler with another 68.
Smith is building a reputation as a great putter, a great weapon to have on the St. Andrews greens, and he plays fearlessly. He started with three birdies in a row, then started going around the loop at the far end of the course.
He putt 18 feet on the No. 7, birdied from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth, then drove to the 10th green and two putts from about 90 feet for a third birdie in four holes.
The big blow came on the par-5 14th when Smith buried the long eagle putt. He looked like he made a small throw for par. It’s his game. It’s his style.
“I’m neither too excited nor too angry. I like to stay in the middle there,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s boring to watch. But that’s how I practice my golf.”
On the other side is McIlroy, among the most dynamic players of his generation. With four major wins early in his career and still a promise of more, he’s considered one of the best candidates to fill at least some of the void when Woods isn’t around.
Woods wasn’t the only early departure. Collin Morikawa became the first defending champion to miss the cut since Darren Clarke in 2012. Phil Mickelson missed Monday’s “Celebration of Champions” exhibition, Tuesday’s Champions Dinner and the weekend. He missed the cut for the third straight time at the British Open.
For now, McIlroy is trying to add his name to the greats who have won an Open at St. Andrews. He has finished in the top 10 at all three previous majors this year. He won the Canadian Open last month. He feels he has always played well.
It would be easy to assume, given his experience at the majors, that he is exactly where he wants to be. But it starts with Smith, who has already beaten the No. 1 player (Jon Rahm) in Kapalua this year and the strongest champ in golf at the Players Championship.
“I just need to get out there and play my game and play golf for the next two days, and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith comes out and shoots two more rounds like he did the first two days, I’m going to have a really hard time winning the tournament. So I just have to go out and do my best and worry about myself, and I hope it’s good enough.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.