ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — All through this year of golf, at the Masters Tournament, the PGA Championship and then the US Open, Rory McIlroy seemed ready to win once more and put an end to the era that had improbably left him without a major tournament victory. since 2014.
He fell short each time, and Sunday at St. Andrews would ultimately be no different despite all the roars that followed him from tee to green around the Old Course.
Cameron Smith and his putter proved too much. Smith, an Australian with a wispy mustache and mullet, has a retro air, and he often had his way with the historic course, holing birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie (yes, five in a row) on the back nine despite the pressure that goes with trying to win one’s first major.
Smith, a 28-year-old from Brisbane in steamy Queensland, became the first Australian to win the British Open since Greg Norman in 1993 and the first Australian man to win any major since Jason Day won the PGA Championship in 2015.
Beginning on No. 10, Smith, who started the day at 12 under par, birdied five consecutive holes, while McIlroy’s birdie putts too often fell short, his advantage slimming and then disappearing. In turn, one month after he missed the cut at the US Open, Smith, the world no. 6, found his way to history on the claret jug.
Smith showed much more precision than emotion during his final-round surge on the becalmed Old Course, but then, he has learned some hard lessons at the majors with four top-five finishes, including a tie for third at the 2022 Masters and a tie for second there in 2020. He won the Players Championship in March, his second PGA Tour victory this season.
But with his remarkable final-round 64 on Sunday, Smith broke through at an iconic place. The Old Course is far from the most difficult Open Championship venue, but it retains its power to inspire.
Smith’s 20-under-par total score of 268 set a record for a British Open at St. Andrews, surpassing Tiger Woods’ score of 19 under when he won the Open here in 2000.
But Woods, then in his prime, won by eight strokes, turning the final round into a procession. Smith’s victory came with much more suspense. With his brilliant putting and calm demeanor, he led the tournament after two rounds but then fell four shots off the lead with a 1-over-par 73 on Saturday, a round that included a double bogey on the par-4 13th when he went for an ill-advised second shot from the edge of a bunker.
By Saturday night, McIlroy had the momentum, sharing a four-shot lead with Viktor Hovland, and on Sunday, he was hearing nothing but positive reinforcement from the record crowd at the Old Course.
“You were born for this Rory!” Come on!” shouted one Scottish fan as McIlroy headed for the 10th tee.
McIlroy, who was born in Northern Ireland and played for Ireland at the Tokyo Olympics, has won a British Open, raising the claret jug in 2014 at Royal Liverpool. Back then, he seemed indomitable. But he missed the Open the next year, the most recent one to be contested at St. Andrews, because of an injury, and faced years of disappointments. Between Royal Liverpool and Sunday, he finished in the top 10 at 16 of the 29 major tournaments in which he competed.
McIlroy, 33, started this Open with a 66 on Thursday, followed by a 68 and another 66 that propelled him into Sunday’s final pairing with Hovland, who was trying to become the first Norwegian man to win a major championship.
“I’m playing well, I’m in good form, my confidence in my game is as high as it’s been in quite a while,” McIlroy said before the tournament began. “I can’t go in here thinking that this might be my time. I just have to go out and play a really good tournament. I’ve got to string four good rounds together, and hopefully at the end of the week, that’s good enough to win.”
Instead, it was only good enough for third place as Cameron Young of the United States finished with an eagle on the 18th hole that put him very briefly in a tie for the lead with his playing partner, Smith, at 19 under.
But Smith had already put his second shot on the par-4 18th just three feet from the hole.
“Cameron was not going to miss that,” said Young, who had watched Smith drain so many pressure putts throughout the overcast afternoon.
Young’s hunch was correct. Smith calmly positioned himself and stroked the ball into the cup to retake the lead at 20 under. The last chance for McIlroy to force a playoff was to make an eagle on 18, which Young had just proven was drivable.
But McIlroy’s drive, like his round, came up short, and when he failed to hole his second shot, Smith was the champion of the 150th British Open with his name engraved — in a hurry — on the claret jug.
“All the hard work we’ve done the last couple of years is really starting to pay off,” Smith said to his team, with the trophy in his grip and the tears starting to come. “And this one definitely makes it worth it.”
But Smith, after recomposing himself, made it clear that he intended to put the claret jug to good use, although not at the moment for claret.
“I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in this thing, that’s for sure,” he said.