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Cameron Smith storms past neutral Rory McIlroy to win 150th Open

Cameron Smith stole the claret jug from Rory McIlroy’s grasp, carding six birdies on the final nine to speed past a stuck-in-neutral McIlroy on Sunday at St. Andrews and capping a 64-64 weekend to win the 150th Open Championship by a shot. Here’s everything you need to know:

Leaderboard: Cameron Smith (-20), Cameron Young (-19), Rory McIlroy (-18), Viktor Hovland (-14), Tommy Fleetwood (-14)

How it happened: Prior to Sunday’s final round, Tiger Woods sent NBC on-course reporter John Wood a text putting himself in the shoes of the two co-leaders, McIlroy and Hovland, who were four shots clear of the nearest chasers, which included Smith. It read: “If I shot 19 under par, which would tie the lowest score in relation to par in all four majors, I would win. How do I go about doing that? No bunkers, no three-putts, take care of the drivable par 4s and take care of the par 5s. Maybe sneak in one or two more [birdies]. Lo and behold, a score around 68 without doing anything special.”

McIlroy tried to follow that game plan. He didn’t find a bunker, nor did he three-putt. And for good measure, he didn’t miss a green in regulation. Unfortunately, for McIlroy, he also couldn’t buy a birdie, managing only two, closing in 2-under 70 and getting passed by the young Aussie, who did, in fact, do something special.

While Hovland fell off the pace early, McIlroy appeared to be doing just enough to win despite just two birdies in his first 10 holes. But by that time, Smith had begun a streak of five straight birdies – from 5, 16, 11, 18 and 5 feet at Nos. 10-14 – and eventually overtook McIlroy by lagging a 30-yarder from off the green to tap-in distance to move to 19 under. Smith added a birdie at the last with a closing 8-under 64, but he actually won this championship a hole earlier, at the par-4 Road Hole, where he piped a drive down the fairway only to smother one left and well short of the green. With the infamous Road Hole Bunker between he and the hole, Smith opted to putt around the trap. He then sunk the clutch 10-footer for par to remain a shot clear of McIlroy, who needed to chip in for eagle at the last but ran it well past and ended up third, two back of Smith and shot behind Young, who eagled No. 18 to earn the runner-up finish.

“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either,” McIlroy said. “It’s just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I felt like I needed to just apart from capitalizing on the easier holes around the turn, 9, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story.”

Added Smith: “I feel like I can breathe. These last four or five holes aren’t easy around here, especially with the wind up off the left. Yeah, just stuck to what I was doing. Yeah, just really proud of how I kind of knuckled down today and managed to get it done.”

Full-field scores from the 150th Open Championship

What it means: Coming into this 150th Open, McIlroy spoke of the significance of winning a claret jug at St. Andrews’ prized Old Course. He called the achievement the “holy grail” of professional golf, so though McIlroy already possessed one Open title, in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, he wanted this one badly. After all, it had been eight years since McIlroy had won a major of any kind. Instead, it was Smith, with just one top-20 in four previous Open starts, knocking off his first major as McIlroy became just the second 54-hole leader/co-leader in the last 30 years of major championships to go bogey-free in the final round and not win (Jason Day was the other, at the 2015 Open, also at St. Andrews).

“At the end of the day, it’s not life or death,” said McIlroy, who now has 17 top-10s in majors since winning his last major title at the 2014 PGA, four of which have come this year. “I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities.”

Smith’s back-nine 30 marked the lowest final nine by an Open winner ever, and his 20-under winning total matched the major record in relation to par (Day at 2015 PGA, Henrik Stenson at 2016 Open and Dustin Johnson at 2020 Masters are the others).

In winning, the 28-year-old Smith became the first Australian to win The Open in 29 years, since Greg Norman also closed in 64 to beat Nick Faldo in 1993 at Royal St. George’s. Though Smith likely still hasn’t done enough to warrant Player of the Year over four-time winner and Masters champ Scottie Scheffler, he is the world No. 1’s clear top challenger, now with three wins this season, his Open victory following titles at Kapalua and TPC Sawgrass.

Round of the day: While McIlroy struck 36 putts on Sunday, Smith had just 29, and that performance with the flatstick helped him card the low final round by a shot over several players, including Young.

Shot of the day: Smith was firing on all cylinders with the putter, but no putt was more crucial than his par save on No. 17. This unconventional up-and-down, which Smith credited as the claret-jug clincher, will be remembered for quite some time:

“That second shot on 17, it’s just really an awkward shot, especially where I was,” Smith explained. “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.”

Biggest disappointment: In what was supposed to be essentially a match-play battle between he and McIlroy, Hovland went birdie-less for 11 holes and never factored down the stretch, finishing with a closing 74.

“It was a little anti-climactic after the day yesterday,” Hovland said. “I was expecting I was going to hang in there for a little bit longer. Yeah, just didn’t have it today.”