Cam Smith wields trademark putter to become Wizard of Aus at St Andrews

On a historic Sunday seemingly preordained as the re-coronation of long-game King Rory, unassuming Cam Smith captured the 150th Open Championship with a putting masterclass for the ages. 

Given he did the damage with a blackened blade, it wasn’t quite the Aussie mullet with the golden mallet but it was irrepressible all the same, a display of touch and nerve on and around the greens the likes of which the venerable Old Course has perhaps never witnessed. Rarely has there been a more stark example of the driving it for show (McIlroy), putting the lights out for immortality (Smith) cliché coming to pass.

Four shots back starting the final round after an icy cold Saturday with his normally faithful flat stick, Smith rode the reignited wand to a bogey-free, eight-under 64 and a place in history as an Old Course champion.

The reigning Players champion had somehow also become the “Champion Golfer of the Year” with a record score of 268, the last 30 shots the sum total of a homeward nine sensationally negotiated in six strokes better than Old Man par on a layout made famous by Old Tom Morris.

While Smith was contemplating his place in St Andrews folklore alongside compatriots Peter Thomson (1955) and Kel Nagle (1960) and Australia’s first Claret Jug since LIV outcast Greg Norman won at Sandwich in 1993, McIlroy was grappling with absolute heartache once more.

“It’s unreal to look at these names on the trophy and then to add mine, it’s unreal. I’m lost for words,” said Smith who became the fifth Australian winner of golf’s oldest major and joined Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Sir Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as contemporary winners of the Claret Jug at the Home of Golf.

Did you also realise Nagle won the 100th Open at St Andrews and now you’re the 150th champion?

“That’s pretty cool. I didn’t know that. I think, to win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career. To do it around St Andrews, I think is just unbelievable.

“This place is so cool. I love the golf course. I love the town. Yeah, hopefully we can keep that trend going with the every 50 years. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

That response drew laughter, as much of his champions’ media conference did. But there was an awkward exchange that surely ruffled a few of the gathered R&A greybeards.

“Cam, apologies for having to bring this up in these circumstances,” a reporter said, “but your name continues to be mentioned, has been mentioned to me this week about LIV golf. What’s your position? Are you interested? Is there any truth to suggestions that you might be signing?”

“I just won the British Open, and you’re asking about that. I think that’s pretty not that good.”

That’s appreciated, but the question remains. Are you interested at all? Is there any truth in that?

“I don’t know, mate. My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.”

Perhaps the non-committal answer was the short shrift it deserved given the circumstances, Still, it won’t have gone unnoticed by those fighting rebel forces out of Ponte Verde and Wentworth and hunkering down for a doubling down of the war for professional golf post-Open.

But that is for later. This was Smith’s moment, his afternoon in fact.

Two front nine birdies gave little hint of the fireworks to come as Smith birdied five successive holes after the turn and the closing hole for good measure.

“I felt as though I hit really good putts all day,” said the 28-year-old Victorian. “I really didn’t have a lot of close opportunities, I think, on the front nine. I just kind of stuck in there, kept hitting really good lag putts.

“For me, the putt on 11 was a pretty good distance, probably 20 feet. When that one dropped, yeah, I could see the hole getting a lot bigger on that back nine for sure.”

For everyone else watching, Smith’s putt from off the fairway, up and around the Road Hole bunker was the definitive moment of an utterly absorbing final round.

“That second shot on 17, it’s just really an awkward shot, especially where I was [despite being in the fairway]. I kind of had to draw a 9-iron in there. You’re only trying to get it to 40 or 50 feet anyway. Just didn’t quite commit to the shape I wanted to hit and got it a little bit toey and turned over a touch more than I would have liked.

“Then the putt next to the green, I mean, I was just trying to get it inside 15 feet, and the putter felt really good all day. I knew, if I could get it somewhere in there, that I’d be able to give it a pretty good run. Yeah, managed to get away with a 4 there.”

After Smith’s two-putt birdie around the Valley of Sin to set the clubhouse target, McIlroy needed to eagle the 18th to force a playoff but failed to nail his final drive on the reachable par-4. After pitching it past the hole, two suddenly irrelevant swipes of his stone-cold mallet followed and meant McIlroy has slipped to third on -18, a stroke behind PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young who had managed to drive and putt for eagle on the last to make Smith’s final putt just a little more tricky.

To be clear, Smith won this Open with a 20-under total rather than Rory conspiring to lose it, as much as the partisan galleries and media had forecast the final round as a match between McIlroy and Norway’s Viktor Hovland who has started tied at -16. Still, a closing 70, where McIlroy couldn’t buy a putt or conjure his wedge to deliver a tap-in blow when he really needed it, will hurt perhaps even more than his 2011 Masters meltdown when a Sunday 80 humbled the Northern Irishman.

“Disappointed obviously,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either.”

Channelling his inner Aussie, Smith made it clear how he was going to celebrate.

“I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in this thing, that’s for sure,” the Victorian said, hugging the  Claret Jug. “This one is for Aus.”

And the mullet which you’ve threatened to have shorn if you ever won a big? Don’t fret, sports fans.

“I think it’s going to stay, mate.”

Just like Smith’s place in Old Course folklore.

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