ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The wind, what little there was of it, finally gave the impression to be blowing Rory McIlroy’s way again at a serious championship.
He had a share of a four-shot lead with one round to go, and though he was not quite playing at home in the house of golf, McIlroy, a Northern Irishman, actually should have felt as if he was playing on his terms and on his turf as he basked within the roars of the record crowd and walked his jaunty walk over the undulating fairways and double greens of the Old Course.
McIlroy, at 33, has each charisma and game, with an elastic swing that gives him the type of power normally related to more muscular men and allows him to pound drives to faraway places.
However the a hundred and fiftieth British Open would come all the way down to deft touch, not overwhelming force, and though McIlroy actually didn’t choke away his likelihood to make history, he hardly seized the massive moment by the lapels and shook it for all it was value.
That was left to Cameron Smith and his putter.
Smith, an Australian with a wispy mustache and mullet, has a retro air, and though blazers and ties are the rule on the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Smith still fit right in on the Old Course, holing birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie (yes, five in a row) on the back nine despite the pressure that goes with attempting to win one’s first major.
Smith, a 28-year-old from Brisbane in steamy Queensland, would make eight birdies in all on Sunday, shooting a superb, bogey-free closing round of 64 that put him at 20 under par and gave him a one-stroke victory over the American Cameron Young. McIlroy finished in third place, another stroke behind, after shooting 70 on Sunday and producing par after par but no fireworks on the back nine.
“The putter just went slightly cold today in comparison with the last three days,” McIlroy said.
Smith had no such difficulties, and he’s the primary Australian to win the British Open since Greg Norman in 1993 and the primary Australian man to win any major since Jason Day won the P.G.A. Championship in 2015.
Smith also maintained his nation’s tradition of winning special anniversary editions of the Open Championship at St. Andrews. The Australian Kel Nagle won the a centesimal edition here in 1960.
“That’s pretty cool; I didn’t know that,” Smith said. “I feel to win an Open Championship in itself might be going to be a golfer’s highlight of their profession. To do it around St. Andrews, I feel, is just unbelievable. This place is so cool. I really like the golf course. I really like the town. Hopefully we will keep that trend going with the every 50 years. That may be nice, wouldn’t it?”
The victory was also, at first glance, a reaffirming moment for the normal tours of their increasingly contentious rivalry with the breakaway, Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, which has used big checks and lighter workloads to lure major stars like Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, all of whom have since been barred from competing on the PGA Tour but, for now, are still in a position to play the majors.
The closest a defector got here to victory on the Old Course was Johnson, who finished in a tie for sixth at 13 under. But Smith was hardly reassuring when asked about rumors that he was considering a jump to LIV. “I just won the British Open, and also you’re asking about that?” he said, visibly uncomfortable, saying the road of inquiry was “not that good.”
The reporter persevered, and Smith neither confirmed nor denied his interest in the brand new tour, which is headed by Norman, a fellow Australian. “I don’t know, mate,” Smith said. “My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.”
Smith, if he does jump, is actually in a stronger bargaining position after his week at St. Andrews, and he showed way more precision than emotion during his final-round surge that began on No. 10 when he made the primary of his five consecutive birdies and started to reel in McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, who were the co-leaders after the third round.
But Smith has learned some hard lessons on the majors with 4 top-five finishes, including a tie for third on the 2022 Masters and a tie for second there in 2020. “I’ve definitely kicked myself a few times over the previous few years,” he said.
He won the Players Championship in March, his second PGA Tour victory this season, also making a string of final-round birdies on the back nine. The Players, with its elite field and wealthy purse, has often been labeled the subsequent neatest thing to a serious, however the Open Championship is the actual deal, and though the Old Course is removed from probably the most difficult test on the rotation, it retains its power to encourage.
Smith’s 20-under-par total rating of 268 set a record for a British Open at St. Andrews, surpassing Tiger Woods’s rating of 19 under when he won the Open here in 2000.
Woods, then in his prime, won by eight strokes, turning the ultimate round right into a processional. But Smith’s victory went to the wire. He led the tournament after two rounds, but then fell 4 shots off the lead with a one-over 73 on Saturday, a round that included a double bogey on the par-4 thirteenth when he went for an ill-advised second shot from the sting of a bunker.
By Saturday night, McIlroy had the momentum, sharing the lead with Hovland, a former collegiate star at Oklahoma State who taught himself the rudiments of the sport by watching YouTube videos and was attempting to change into the primary Norwegian to win a serious.
“You were born for this Rory! Come on!” shouted one Scottish fan as McIlroy headed for the tenth tee on Sunday.
McIlroy won the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool and added a fourth major on the P.G.A. Championship later that season. He seemed set for an extended run of dominance, but missed the British Open the subsequent yr, probably the most recent one to be contested at St. Andrews, due to an injury, and has faced years of final-round disappointments.
Eight years later, the chase for the subsequent major continues despite the fact that he finished in the highest 10 in all 4 majors this season.
“I’ll rue just a few missed type of putts that slid by, nevertheless it’s been a great week overall,” he said. “I can’t be too despondent due to how this yr’s went and this yr’s going. I’m playing a few of the very best golf I’ve played in an extended time. So it’s only a matter of keep knocking on the door and eventually one will open.”
This one opened for Smith as an alternative. “Look, I got beaten by a greater player this week,” McIlroy said. “Twenty under par for 4 rounds of golf around here is absolutely, really impressive playing, especially to exit and shoot 64 today to get it done.”
To get it done, Smith needed to get better from a shaky second shot on the infamous Road Hole, the par-4 seventeenth that played tougher than any hole on the course this yr. But Smith produced a beautifully weighted putt uphill from off the green that left him with a 10-foot putt to avoid wasting par. He made it and headed to the 18th hole, where Young, his playing partner, finished with an eagle that put him very briefly in a tie for the lead with Smith, at 19 under.
But Smith had already put his second shot on the par-4 18th just two feet from the outlet.
“Cameron was not going to miss that,” said Young, who had watched Smith drain so many pressure putts throughout the overcast afternoon.
Young knew his man. Smith calmly positioned himself and stroked the ball into the cup to retake the lead at 20 under.
The last likelihood for McIlroy to force a playoff was to make an eagle on 18, which Young had just proven was drivable. But McIlroy’s tee shot, like his round, got here up short, and when he didn’t hole his second shot, Smith was the British Open champion together with his name engraved — in a rush — on the claret jug.
“All of the exertions we’ve done the last couple years is absolutely beginning to repay,” Smith said to his team, with the trophy in his grip and the tears starting to come back. “And this one definitely makes it value it.”
But Smith, after composing himself, made it clear that he intended to place the claret jug to good use, although not in the intervening time for claret.
“I’m definitely going to learn the way many beers fit on this thing, that’s obviously,” he said.