At an Open Championship that for much of the week felt preordained to be won by Rory McIlroy it was always going to take something special to defy the golfing gods, but Cameron Smith provided it on Sunday.
The Australian played the back nine of the Old Course at St Andrew’s in six under par to complete a final round of 64 and finish the tournament on 20 under par, equalling Henrik Stenson’s record from 2016.
While McIlroy failed to get out of second gear in his attempt to close out victory, Smith put his foot down to wipe out a four-shot overnight deficit, overtake the 2014 champion and claim his maiden major title.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “This place is so cool. To have the 150th Open here and to walk away with the win is something I’ve dreamt of. I didn’t even know I was going to get this far and it’s awesome.
Five consecutive birdies after the turn propelled Smith into the lead and he defended his position thereafter, crucially saving par at the 17th – the infamous Road Hole – with a two-putt that gave him one hand on the Claret Jug.
“I was just trying to get it on the green,” he added. “My putter felt good all day. I knew if I could get it somewhere inside 15-20 feet I’d have a good run at it. And yeah, luckily I got away with the four there.”
Smith’s triumph caps a fine year for the unassuming 28-year-old from Brisbane, who won The Players Championship in March and went toe to toe with eventual winner Scottie Scheffler at the Masters a few weeks later.
He is the first Australian to win the Open since Greg Norman in 1993 and the first man sporting a mullet hairstyle to lift the Claret Jug since John Daly, who you suspect would approve of Smith’s plans to celebrate with the iconic trophy.
“I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in this thing, that’s for sure,” he joked.
McIlroy seemed fated to end his eight-year major drought at this 150th Open, having looked back to his imperious best at times this season and played the first 54 holes in 16 under par.
But having seen overnight co-leader Viktor Hovland stumble to leave him out in front alone, and despite not dropping a shot all day, he had no answer to Smith’s salvo of birdied and had to settle for third behind American Cameron Young, who finished with a 65 to take second place.
“I kind of expected someone to come from the pack,” said McIlroy. “The two Camerons played really, really well today. They made life difficult for me.
“I played a controlled round of golf but when I needed to make some birdies at the start of the back nine I just couldn’t.
“Cam [Smith] played an unbelievable first two days and then kind of got his bad day out of the way on Saturday and followed it up with a great round today.
“I came up a couple short – I thought I needed to at least get to 20 [under par] – so I’m disappointed that I didn’t do that.”
Of some consolation for the Northern Irishman was a clean sweep of top-10 finishes at all the majors in 2022.
“Compared to the last year it’s been really positive,” he added. “A second at Augusta, third here, fifth at the US Open – the game’s heading in the right direction.
“I didn’t get it done today and unfortunately there’s seven or eight months until the next major so I’ll just have to keep playing good golf until then. But I can’t get despondent. I’ve played great this season and just want to finish the season well.”
England’s Tommy Fleetwood shot a 67 to share fourth place with Hovland, who made just one birdie in a 74.