Written by: Will Knights, Brendan Porath, and Andy Johnson
1 Cameron Smith (-20)
2 Cameron Young (-19)
3 Rory McIlroy (-18)
T-4 Tommy Fleetwood (-14)
T-4 Viktor Hovland
Champion Golfer of the Year
By Will Knights
When asked about his countryman Cameron Smith after the round, Adam Scott remarked, “It’s probably a lot of things, but some people just have it, that’s the easiest way to say it.” Smith’s combination of competitiveness, aggression, coolness under pressure, and sheer brilliance with the putter earned him a Claret Jug on Sunday and it was a show to behold up close.
More than 300,000 people made their way through St. Andrews this weekend for the 150th Open Championship, but only Smith walked away a major champion.
Following a disappointing round of 73 on Saturday when his putter no-showed, Smith was four shots behind Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland entering the final round at the Old Course. A front-nine 34 didn’t gain him much ground, but everything changed after he made the turn. Smith made five consecutive birdies on Nos. 10-14, holing three putts outside of 10 feet in the process. With McIlroy stalling with pars behind him, Smith walked off the 14th green with the lead for the first time since Saturday morning. Excellent approach shots on Nos. 15 and 16 prevented bogeys, but on 17, the championship hung in the balance when his second shot wound up behind the Road Hole bunker. He proceeded to putt around the bunker and calmly sink yet another clutch putt. An easy birdie on 18, his eighth of the day, secured a final-round 64, his second such round of the week. His four-round total of 268 set the Old Course record for an Open Championship, and a few minutes later he was announced as the Champion Golfer of the Year.
It was supposed to be McIlroy’s day. But whereas Rory’s foot hovered over the gas pedal all weekend, Cam pounded the accelerator over and over—sometimes when he shouldn’t have. His chances went from distant to inevitable in the matter of an hour on Sunday, once again showing his ability to get hot at the right time.
After keeping pace with a birdie on the par-4 10th, Smith made a statement with another on the difficult 11th, one of just five circles the hole saw all day. “The putt on 11 was a pretty good distance, probably 20 feet,” he said after the round. “When that one dropped, yeah, I could see the hole getting a lot bigger on that back nine, for sure.” Two holes later, after sticking a long approach to 18 feet, he really started to believe. “My second shot into 13 was really when I thought that we can win this thing,” he said. “For that [putt] to go in, I think, that was it for me.” Smith made everything from inside 20 feet on the back nine while also displaying remarkable weight on long-range putts. He wound up gaining 11.98 shots on the greens on the week, far and away the best putting performance of anyone in the field.
A rare breed of superstar in today’s game, Smith added distance in 2022 yet is still below average off the tee. It’s the other aspects of the game, approach, around and on the greens where the Aussie shines. This year, he has taken advantage of courses where driving accuracy isn’t required, such as Kapalua and Augusta National, while also succeeding at venues like TPC Sawgrass, where his iron play and magical short game won him a Players. He’s a bona fide star and now the No. 2 player in the world.
Rory’s safety gamble
By Brendan Porath
One of the more heartbreaking scenes I’ve witnessed was Rory McIlroy answering questions about how he let what felt like an almost sure Open title “slip away” as Martin Slumbers’s voice echoed behind him in the most famous field in golf awarding the Champion of Golfer of the Year to someone else. The PA system was loud and unavoidable, with the famous row of buildings on Links Road over his shoulder as he spoke soberly about what had happened to him. Or was it what more of what he did?
There will be some debate as to how active a role Rory played on Sunday in extending his major-less drought to 2023. Smith’s 64 was brilliant, stunning, and he’s a deserving champion. “I got beaten by a better player this week,” Rory added about the Aussie. McIlroy played in full control all week, avoiding the bunkers (except one, which he holed out from), three-putts, and, for the most part, bogeys. He was a tactician, and he’s likely a better golfer now than when he won his last major.
But Smith should have forced him to change the process and the approach, which Rory did not do coming back to the clubhouse as the lead dwindled and then turned into a deficit. The process this week was to keep it simple and boring at the arena in golf that allows for the most creativity. It could have been the proper approach, a Tiger-like choking out of his opponents. Only he’s not as good as Tiger in his prime (no one is), and the opponents, at least on this day, might be better.
“It’s just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf… I was just doing my own thing,” he told us. “It was working well until I needed to respond to what Cam was doing out there.” And then the process and approach wasn’t enough.
Hitting all 18 greens in regulation is a commendable achievement but worth looking at in the context of these massive double greens. Something slightly more aggressive and daring was needed to get closer to these pins before it got to 17, where he hit a beautiful approach shot to the hardest hole on the course, and the last-chance desperation heave for an eagle at 18. He played safe in spots out on the loop, while Smith, who had the luxury of chasing, went aggressive and executed. Then Rory couldn’t summon a birdie in the harder stretch into the house. In addition to strategy, the putter left him hanging. The missed birdie try at the third and two-putt par at the ninth were especially critical lost chances with that club.
While there was a particularly agonizing confession about looking out at the yellow scoreboard at the 18th that was directly across from his hotel room all week, McIlroy seemed otherwise sanguine after the crushing loss. At least that’s the face he presented to the press. It was no doubt painful, but he used clichés like “dusting himself off” and “knocking on the door.” He’s playing great golf; it’s just that he carries the burden of generational talent, prior success, and an expectation to peak on the same 16 days of every year in a fickle game.
Rory did nothing close to choking or fading. He was in control and inspired all week, a crowd favorite who would have been a deserving champion. Smith beat him, but Rory helped with some safe (which may have been smart!) play on Sunday. “I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either,” sums it up well from the man in the arena.
LIV’s prompt return
By Brendan Porath
Cam had not even taken a drink out of the Claret Jug before the ongoing LIV drama returned after a four-day respite dedicated to the actual golf. Smith was asked about persistent rumors linking him to LIV, and he offered nothing close to denial, instead acting bothered by the question and saying he lets his team handle those things while he plays golf.
Smith has been rumored as one of the Aussies planning to jump over to the upstart circuit. This major win has to dramatically increase his value if he’s in talks with LIV and hasn’t finalized a deal. It would also be a mess for the PGA Tour, as he’s the reigning Players champ, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, and would give LIV its own nice trophy to trot around for the next year: “We have the last men’s major winner on our circuit and the Champion Golfer of the Year!” It’s damn near a worst-case scenario when it comes to a winner this week should Smith make the jump. His reply did little to alleviate the rumors or fears, and his irritation seemed misplaced: it’s a fair question and punting it to “my team” was a bit weak.
In addition to the awkward Cam exchange, you also had Jon Rahm calling out the tours, most aggressively the DP World Tour, for turning their backs on members who had helped built it but now play for LIV. He seemed most bothered by losing Sergio García for the Ryder Cup and asked for all sides to work it out together. Speaking of losing Ryder Cup assets, reports also surfaced last Sunday night that the worst-kept secret was about to be out in the open: Euro captain Henrik Stenson is set to join LIV and will lose his captaincy.
Did you enjoy those four days or major golf? It’s a long eight months and many, many more LIV stories until the Masters.
An ode to the Old Course
By Andy Johnson
What a week for the Old Course. A relatively dry week allowed the layout to play firmer and faster than any course I can recall seeing in person. This put a real premium on ball control throughout each shot. This week wasn’t just about a number to the pin. Players needed to think about where to land it, the shape, the trajectory, and the spin, and then execute a flawless strike of the golf ball off of the tightest turf in the world.
It was beautiful golf, especially when combined with the strategic nature of the Old Course. For some holes, different days yielded different requirements for success. In particular, No. 15 demanded smart tactics late on Sunday. A challenging pin on the left half of the green was impossible to access when approaching from the left side of the fairway or rough. The best chances I saw came from Justin Thomas, who drove it up the right side close to the out of bounds, and Cam Smith, who laid back with an iron off the tee and left a longer but better angled approach. On Saturday, with the pin on the right side, the left edge of the fairway was the garden spot. Cam Smith had it worked out, as on Saturday he pushed a driver up the left side, which yielded a short birdie opportunity (that he didn’t cash). While few holes at the Old Course are outwardly hard—the exceptions are Nos. 11 and 17—conquering all of them requires excellent shotmaking and decision-making.
The third (foreground) and 15th (background) pins at the Old Course. Photo: Andy Johnson
The course also had an air of attainability this weekend. It felt like someone was going to go ridiculously low every day, but nearly every time you would see a player really get going, they would stumble. It’s the most fascinating type of golf. Birdies were possible on every hole, but poor shots and decisions made pars difficult. Despite the course probably playing to an effective distance of 6,400 yards, just nine scores of 65 or better were recorded on the championship. Going low was possible; it was just really hard, and the Champion Golfer of the Year did it twice—Friday and Sunday.
This scoring malleability helped separate the leaderboard. By the back nine on Sunday it was clear that three players—Smith, McIlroy, and Young—were the class of the week. When courses are soft and have benign greens and little strategy, fields tend to bunch together. Even without crazy length, the Old Course’s mixture of strategy and firmness allows the best players of the week to shine and delivers world-class championships. Hopefully, by the time the next Open Championship returns in 2030, pro golf’s distance problem will have been addressed with equipment regulations. Maybe we will see fewer wedges, more long irons, and fewer pace-of-play issues. Until then, I cannot wait to see this course played by the world’s best women at the 2024 AIG Women’s Open.
By Will Knights
Rory McIlroy and Cameron Smith soaked up most of the storylines at St. Andrews, but their weekend playing partners largely held their own.
PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young played both weekend rounds with Smith, shooting 71-65 over the final 36 holes en route to a runner-up finish. Playing in the final group on Saturday, Young didn’t quite have his best stuff. It was the first time in his career that he was in the final group of a major championship on a weekend. Although he made a deep run at the PGA Championship (T-3), he didn’t seem fully ready to go out and contend at St. Andrews early on Sunday when he missed from inside three feet to bogey the opening hole. But seven birdies over his next 13 holes shot him back into contention, and on No. 15 he had a chance to tie for the lead. Again, the moment seemed to get to him again, and he left his putt woefully short. Then he hit three of the best drives of the day on Nos. 16-18, nearly birdieing the Road Hole and making an eagle on the 72nd hole to get in at -19. The nerves were there, but so was the grit. Cameron Young is a genuine major-championship threat.
Viktor Hovland left the opposite impression. Paired with McIlroy for both weekend rounds, Hovland balled out on Saturday but looked like a different player on Sunday. He played extremely conservatively on the front nine, making questionable decisions on holes where it pays to be aggressive. His lone birdie came on the short par-4 12th, and three bogeys left him six shots behind Smith. His nerves were understandable, as he’s never been anywhere near the lead in the final round of a major championship. Still, Hovland is a world-class talent, and he should be expected to play like one on Sunday at the Open.
For a recap in audio form, check out our podcast “Takeaways from the 2022 Open Championship”: