That a major doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday remains one of golf’s oldest clichés, but for Rory McIlroy it might never have felt so devastatingly accurate. The Northern Irishman had held a two-shot lead at the turn at St Andrews and the end to an eight-year major drought seemed to be gathering certainty with every step through the wind away from the clubhouse. Then, Cameron Smith mounted a charge of such relentless brilliance that even a course as saturated with history as this had no option but to bow before him. Having started four shots off McIlroy’s lead, six birdies in the last nine holes ensured the Australian of his maiden major title with an Open record-equalling low score of 20 under par.
This 150th Open Championship was a glorious ceasefire in golf’s civil war – although not if rumours of Smith’s potential defection to LIV Golf come to fruition – but it will be best remembered as another agonising near-miss for McIlroy, who showed such great composure in the final group alongside Viktor Hovland only to be continually betrayed by his putter. A round of 70 was hardly a collapse but it was the worst of those who finished on the first page of the leaderboard and he was even leapfrogged to second place at the last when Cameron Young capped a remarkable Open debut with an eagle.
McIlroy’s disappointment will endure but Smith’s back nine will go down as one of the best in Open history and the manner in which he closed out victory, staving off disaster at the Road Hole and then birdieing the last, was a worthy legend. It was only made more impressive by how the 28-year-old seized it in the eye of a storm as the entirety of St Andrews willed McIlroy towards the finish line. “I thought the fans were great today,” McIlroy said afterwards. “I thought they were really, really good. Unbelievably supportive of me. I wish I could have given them a little more to cheer about. There’s a worthy winner on the 18th green right now.”
One of the signature moments of this Open will remain McIlroy’s tip of the hat to Tiger Woods on Friday afternoon. It felt like a passing of the torch but, while Woods’s ice melted into tears on the Swilcan Bridge, it was his old ruthless edge that McIlroy so desperately needed. He had strode onto the first tee with a laser-like focus that kept any nerves at bay but whereas Woods’s aura used to drive fear into the hearts of his opponents, McIlroy and Hovland shared smiles rather than snarls and there was no early dagger in what was supposedly a two-horse race.
Time would prove it anything but, yet it took a while for Smith’s insurgence to materialise. While McIlroy and Hovland both started with a hat-trick of pars, alternating between rattling putts through the break and then dribbling them short, only Jordan Spieth had made a significant leap up the leaderboard. Having started some eight shots back, four birdies in seven holes still wouldn’t suffice. Bryson DeChambeau’s 66 and Tommy Fleetwood’s 67 were always a case of too little, too late.
And so, as the friendly air of the final group shootout became thicker with tension, it was Hovland whose pistol backfired first. A jittery three-putt lent credence to those who pointed out that for all the Norwegian’s proven talent, he has been more mercurial in the majors. His error handed McIlroy the outright lead and the cheers echoed from the fourth green to the furthest tip of the Old Course that meets the Eden Estuary.
At that stage, McIlroy looked so assured and in complete command of his emotions. His driver was like a controlled explosion, just as lethal but without any added collateral, leaving him in a position to attack almost every flag. A two-putt birdie at the par 5 was rendered a formality but it was from there that the precision of McIlroy’s approaches and his putting began to falter. After another huge drive left him just 56 yards from the pin at six, he opted to putt all the way through the undulations and up the steep ridge that guards the green. His ball just about crawled its way to the summit, roared up the final few steps by the crowd, but a 16ft birdie putt dived low of the hole. At the ninth, a shorter chance befell the same fate.
Before the Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup last September, with Team USA already on a certain course for a landslide victory, Woods sent a message to Steve Stricker. The text, which was read out in the locker room, said: “Step on their necks.” Perhaps, that is the sort of vulgar, unsparing attitude required to dominate a game so genteel. McIlroy had maintained a firm grip on his lead, making the turn in 35 to stay two shots clear, but a closed fist still lacked a decisive punch.
It was then that Smith attacked with all the vigour and cutting edge McIlroy had been crying out for. You can trace the historic back-nines that have won this tournament like veins underneath the baked skin of its fairways. Even then, there are still few that could pump blood quite so fiercely as the five consecutive birdies Smith put together. His approach play was exquisite and his putting carried all the smooth certainty that had made him the 36-hole leader on Friday. When the Australian tapped in at the 14th, he hadn’t snatched the lead but prised it forcefully out of McIlroy’s palms.
“I think it’s very easy to get defensive out there and keep hitting it to 60, 70 feet, and you can make pars all day, but you’re not going to make birdies,” Smith said. “I think my mindset would have been a touch different coming in, especially on that back nine, if I was ahead. My second shot into 13 was really when I thought that we can win this thing.”
McIlroy still had chances but collective sighs around the green started to become painfully familiar after his putt died just a few inches in front of the hole at 13 and another birdie chance went begging at the par 5. They were replaced by gasps up ahead that told of Smith’s charge finally being halted. No Open at St Andrews is complete without a dramatic chapter at the Road Hole and, after pulling his approach, Smith needed to putt around the cavernous pot bunker to leave himself 10ft to save par. There could hardly have been a greater test of nerves, but Smith remained incredibly cool as the ball rolled into the dead centre of the hole. From just a few feet further away on almost exactly the same line, McIlroy’s birdie putt dipped low again and no amount of yearning could shift the contours in his favour.
Smith stepped onto the last tee knowing a birdie would almost certainly be enough to seal it. In the end, it was the least that was required after Young’s eagle. But after driving to the front of the green, Smith refused to waver and McIlroy was left to make the greatest walk in golf while ruing again what might have been.