FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
British Open 2022: How Cameron Smith became the Savant of St. Andrews
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — My assignment was to write the winner. Really, I am more comfortable writing the loser, and Alan Shipnuck and I have divvied things up that way often over the years. But on this Sunday, my job was to write the winner. And that winner, of course, would be Rory McIlroy, whom I first met when he was 19 and destined for golf greatness. And the story would be — dare I say it? — easy to write, because, in this moment of chaos in this most tradition-minded of games, who has stood for time-honored golfing traditions more than Rory McIlroy?
You know, the R&A power brokers made him an honorary member of the club this week, along with Paul Lawrie of Scotland and Tiger Woods of 15 majors.
Those same powers gave McIlroy a late Friday afternoon start, timed so he could be going up the first hole just as Woods would be coming down the 18th, as a sort of symbolic changing of the guard, because if this tournament was about any one thing, it was about saying goodbye to Tiger as a serious competitive golfer in major championships.
For three days, McIlroy was doing everything right on the course with his clubs and everything right off the course in his interviews. When he was not on the course or the practice grounds, he was staying with his wife and young daughter and parents at the rejuvenated Rusacks Hotel on the 18th fairway.
Well, McIlroy knows how these things work. The guy who is, quote, supposed to win, unquote, doesn’t always win. You know who wins? The guy who shoots the lowest score for 72 holes. And that man, of course, was Cameron Smith.
“With a score of 268, the winner of the gold medal and the Champion Golfer of the Year is Cameron Smith,” the gent from the R&A said, standing in the middle of the 18th green.
A short sentence that will cling to Cam Smith of Australia forever.
With a score of 269, the winner of a big, fat second-place check ($1.4 million) and a guaranteed spot in all of the 2023 majors, is the bearded 25-year-old American Cameron Young, with a downswing so violent it will make your back ache. Stand up and take a bow if you saw that coming.
Your presumptive winner (note to self: never presume you can predict anything), with a score of 270, finished third. If you want to know about the 36 putts McIlroy took on Sunday, I suggest you click over to Alan’s story. He writes winners like nobody’s business. But on this Sunday, the Sunday of the 150th Open, played for the 30th time on the Old Course, he wrote the loser. It does sound harsh. Life in the big city. Golf is harsh. It can be. Tiger Woods and Tom Weiskopf and Jean van de Velde and Ed Sneed and a thousand other players will tell you that.
I covered Cam Smith’s win at the Players Championship in March at TPC Sawgrass, and I was lucky enough to see a good bit of his weekend play here at the Old Course. Let me share two observations.
The first is that there is not a pretentious bone in his body. That might not sound like much, but the level of self-importance in certain sections of the golf population is downright suffocating just now. Teachers, broadcasters, writers, caddies, touring pros, course architects, club managers, club designers, club manufacturers and various others acting like masters of the universe just because they have some vaunted position in the game.
Cam Smith, Sunday night, on what the claret jug can hold, liquid-wise:
“I’m going to guess two cans of beer.”
And his evening plans?
“I’ll probably have about 20 claret jugs,” he said. He quickly added, “To be honest, I’m really tired. It’s been a long week.”
The second observation is obvious to anyone who watched his Sunday round, and his Thursday and Friday rounds, for that matter: With a wedge or chipping club or putter in hand, the man is an absolute savant. As McIlroy said early in the week, the Old Course is a fiddly course. It wasn’t fiery, but it was fast, and there was very little grass under your ball for any greenside shot. Smith looked almost Seve-like, and almost Daly-like, in his ability to assess speed and line, to negotiate the hundreds of little hillocks that make the Old Course the Old Course. Those who really, really have the gift, as Seve Ballesteros (the winner here in 1984) and John Daly (the winner here in 1995), can size up the demands of the shot in a nanosecond, even if they might use a full half-minute to make things look more dramatic.
The shot of the tournament might have been Smith’s third on 17, the once-notorious par-4 Road Hole. (It plays too short to be truly notorious anymore.) Smith was about 15 feet short of the Road Hole bunker, to the left of the green.
His ball was about 60 feet from the hole. He had to go uphill, downhill, uphill and downhill. Some guys would have tried a path to the instant all-time highlight reel. That is, an open-faced, spinning lob wedge almost to the hole. Or a shut-wedge bump-and-run that you drive into the first hill.
And then there was the best option, assuming you had the confidence to try it: Putt the ball, knowing you could never knock it stone-dead but also knowing you have a pretty good chance on your par putt, from like 15 feet. That takes confidence, intelligence and skill. He took the land route. He made the 4 that Tom Watson was looking for in 1984 and Jordan Spieth was looking for in 2015.
“He made a really good decision,” said Smith’s playing partner, the other Cameron. “And he executed it perfectly.”
One of the most impressive things Smith did was to get his tournament back on track after a poor third round. His first two rounds were absurdly good, a 67 followed by a 64. He was the leader by two and in Saturday’s last twosome, with Young. He couldn’t keep a good thing going. Everybody playing any good broke 70 on Saturday. When you consider how short the course was playing, it was essentially a par 68 on Saturday. Smith shot 73. I can’t think of a major where a 36-hole leader went south on Saturday and came back to win on Sunday. In that situation, a bad Saturday round usually dooms your Sunday, too.
“You know, he was annoyed at the round, but it didn’t kill his confidence,” Sam Pinfold, Smith’s caddie, told me on Sunday night. “He’s a great putter who had a bad putting round. So he just said, ‘I’m swinging well, I’m hitting it well, I’m not going to have two bad putting days in a row.’” And so it was.
With no wind to blow his mullet, Smith went around the Old Course without a bogey and chased down McIlroy by starting his back nine with five consecutive birdies. His eight-under 64 was the lowest final-round score recorded by an Open champion.
When I tried to praise Pinfold for Smith’s spectacular lag putt from off the green, his second shot on 18, the caddie would have none of it. It was straight up a hill and then swooping crazily to the left. The ball stopped about a foot under the hole.
Smith took an indirect route to make par at the Road Hole. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
You can’t teach talent like that.
“I don’t read the putts,” Pinfold said. “On the greens, he does it all.” Well, this was off the green, but at the Old Course there’s not much difference.
You know how a lot of players walk around a golf course these days, looking at their yardage books like travelers at airports looking at their smartphones? Smith is not like that. He’s taking things in.
Greg Norman, the great Australian golfer, won the Open in 1986 and ’93. Until Sunday, he was the last Aussie to win the Open. Smith was born a few weeks after Norman’s win in ’93. They are both from Queensland. The R&A powers disinvited Norman from this year’s dinner for former champions, because of his role as the commissioner of the upstart league, the LIV Golf series. McIlroy is, unabashedly, anti-LIV. If there’s a poster man for that position, McIlroy’s your guy. Smith was asked, in victory, if he was considering a move to LIV. He had this response:
“I just won the British Open, and you’re asking about that. I think that’s not that good.”
“I appreciate that,” the reporter said in a followup, “but the question is still there: Are you interested at all?”
“I don’t know, mate,” Smith said. “My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.”
Smith has won two big ones this year, the aforementioned Players at TPC Sawgrass and now the British Open at the Old Course in mid-summer. I asked him to compare the two courses.
“I can’t, to be honest,” Smith replied. “There’s not a lot of similarities. They’re two really different golf courses. I think when Sawgrass plays firm and fast, it can be similar in some aspects. But they are two really different golf courses. I think you have to be two completely different golfers to contend at both of those golf courses.”
And he did. Contended twice, won twice. With those two big titles, he will be at the heart of the conversation for various player of the year awards, lower-case letters. He only needed one of those two titles to be the Champion Golfer of the Year. He’s it, just like Rory was in 2014. There’s a new name on the old jug.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com