GOLF

Rory McIlroy’s Agony and Cam Smith’s Ecstasy at The Open Championship

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There’s a famous saying, written in the early 1900s by an author whose name has since been lost to time, that golf is a good walk wasted: a lousy game to play if you’re not a fan of it. , and a mentally taxing undertaking. enough to bring you to your knees even if you are. But Sunday, it was not only a good ride that was spoiled, but rather a good story.

Going into the final round of the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy was alone with the weight of expectation and hope. His hope, surely, was that he would take his fifth major career win, and the first in eight grueling years, and do it in “the house of golf.” But it was also the hope of millions of fans around the world that their favorite player – the guy who once, and maybe still, expected to succeed Tiger Woods as the face of the sport – would join the ranks. of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson and would regain the form and finishing instinct he lacked since the 2014 PGA Championship.

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He was in a prime position to do so as co-leader heading into Sunday. McIlroy came 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 on more this week than perhaps anyone but Woods. Crucially, his game looked poised to carry him: In previous majors this year, he’d tied for second, eighth and fifth, and he’d shot in the 60s on each of the first three days of the Open.

But on Sunday, that weight came back for him. Instead of taking risks and playing bold as he had done all week, McIlroy struggled to make a splash. At times when he had made a miraculous chip-in from the bunker or long buried putts in the early rounds, on the last day there were two putts early and often (he ended the day minus-2.18 in strokes won putting). And while none of that necessarily led to his downfall – texting with NBC Sports’ John Wood On Saturday night, Woods said if he was in McIlroy’s position he would aim to finish at 19 under par while avoiding bunkers and three putts – that wasn’t enough. Not when Cameron Smith, a man known as much for his mullet and wispy mustache combo as his putter, was right out front lighting the Old Course on fire.


All week — his entire career, in fact — Smith had no regard for the script, for what he or anyone else was “supposed” to do. He stormed the gate Thursday to shoot 67. Then followed it Friday with a ridiculous 64, with five birdies on the front nine and a massive eagle on the no. 14 on a 295-yard approach shot and a 64 foot putt.

He made history on Saturday as he and Cameron Young, playing in the last group of the day, failed to come down and lost their places to McIlroy and Hovland. (Here I am contractually obliged to mention the crazy baseball-swing shot Smith hit at no. 13, while standing inside a bunker, which eventually led to a double bogey.) And on Sunday, in an all-time display of DGAF energy, he devoured victory carefully packed from McIlroy by shooting 64 more, tied for the second lowest final round score by a winner in Open Championship history.

Things started slowly for Smith on Sunday: a birdie at 2, followed by a birdie at 5 that would help him take the turn three strokes behind McIlroy. But then the putts started flowing like Smith’s hair in the St. Andrews wind.

While McIlroy had just one birdie behind his back, Smith opened with back-to-back birdies, the longest last-round streak of the Open in 21 years old. Within an hour, he increased his probability of winning from just over 6% to almost 56%.

He made every big shot imaginable, putting the 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th holes during this birdie barrage. And when he approached the 17th tee, he held a one-stroke lead over McIlroy and a two-stroke 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 17th testy leaves players with almost too many options at their disposal and half of them can give you exquisite trouble. Smith’s second shot there on Sunday almost did just that, settling just behind the huge bunker on the green side of the hole and leaving him with only one choice to save par: putting around the lip of the bunker and hope that he would find himself close enough to go up and down. And of course, in one of his last magical acts of the weekend, Smith did exactly what he needed to do: round the bunker, drop the ball 10 feet from the hole, and slam a putt.

With his closing birdie on the no. 18, which ended up being needed after Young eagled to tie Smith at 19 under, Smith finished the back nine at 6 under par, matching McIlroy in 2010 as the only players to be this low at a St. Andrews Open.

Although McIlroy’s Sunday didn’t live up to his previous rounds, he didn’t really to lose this open. He became the first player in major league history to enter a final round with the lead, hit every green in regulation and not come away with a win. He came within inches of reaching under-19 multiple times, which is exactly what Woods said he would have wanted to do in his situation. But, clearly, McIlroy didn’t need another strong showing – he needed a win. And that’s the problem.

In a post-tour interview with NBC, McIlroy put on a brave face. He said he had a great opportunity which he just didn’t take advantage of; he lamented his inability to make putts when he needed to and praised Smith, who he said was the best player on the day.

But when asked about becoming an honorary member of the R&A earlier this week and what would be his biggest lesson to take from another disappointment, the armor fell a little. There was a sigh, a pause, a classic McIlroy moment of reflection. “Just that I know I can do it,” Rory replied. “I love this golf. I play well here. The last two Opens I’ve played here, I’ve finished third both times. It happens. … I just have to be patient and keep knocking on the door, and eventually they will open to me again.

As McIlroy spoke, members of the R&A were busy turning the green behind him for another trophy ceremony that wouldn’t include him, ready to hand the brilliant Claret Jug to a golfer who had 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 everyone in the stands was supporting the other guy. The 28-year-old will be a contender in many major tournaments to come, especially the Masters tournament in April, where he has finished T5, T2, T10 and T3 in the last five tournaments. But with his walk just beginning, McIlroy has let himself be spoiled once again. And for another eight months, he and his fans have to hope and wait.

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