Party Crasher

British Open 2022: Cam Smith spoils an all-time story at the Old Course by scripting one of his own

Rory McIlroy had the crowd on his side, but Smith had a hot putter and belief in himself


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — In the 162 years of its existence, the Open Championship has been won 150 different ways by 89 different people. But surely none of the other 88 did it with more style than the latest member of golf’s elite clan, Cameron Smith. Playing almost perfect golf—and making almost every putt he looked at—the 28-year-old Australian toured the Old Course at St. Andrews in 64 shots to reach 20 under par for the week, one shot better than Cameron Young and two clear of pre-round favorite Rory McIlroy.

No one else was even close.

“I feel like I can breathe now,” was Smith’s immediate reaction, one that belied the apparently emotionless way in which he picked apart golf’s most famous course. “Those last four or five holes aren't easy around here. I just stuck to what I was doing. I’m really proud of how I knuckled down and managed to get it done. To win an Open Championship is probably going to be the highlight of any golfer’s career. To do it around St. Andrews is just unbelievable.”

He’s being modest. None of what transpired was even a little bit surprising, even after Smith’s stumble on Saturday when he struggled round in 73. He arrived at the Home of Golf already a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, his victories coming at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Players. And there were hints of a return to that sort of form only seven days ago when Smith made five birdies during a final-round 67 at the Genesis Scottish Open. Only a bogey at the last slightly soured a weekend in which he bounced back from a second-round 75 to finish in a share of 10th place.

Certainly, Smith, only the fifth Australian after Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch to be Champion Golfer of the Year, saw it all coming. Speaking at Augusta National earlier this year, the confidence he gained from his victory in the so-called fifth major at TPC Sawgrass was already evident.

“My play this year has shown me I can get it done when I'm up against the best guys in the world,” he said. “It's a good feeling to have. It's earned. It's not given to you.”

This, the biggest victory of Smith’s life, was no different. Young shot 65 in the final round and lost. McIlroy played all 18 holes without a bogey or a missed green—and came up two shots short.

But the way Smith saw off them and everyone else surely outmatches anything else in his professional life. In short, the two-time Australian PGA champion ultimately did just about everything right over the course of a final day that began with him four-shots adrift of McIlroy and World No. 9, Viktor Hovland. Two under par to the turn was steady but hardly scintillating. Standing on the 10th tee, Smith was still three-shots adrift. But that was the point where he started making birdies, a run that did not stop until he holed out for par on the 15th green. Five in a row and, suddenly, the narrowest of leads to himself over a becalmed McIlroy.

“I just had to be patient. I felt good all day, and those putts just started going in on that back nine and just got a lot of momentum going," Smith said. "I sometimes think that being behind on certain golf courses and in certain situations is a good thing. It's very easy to get defensive out there and keep hitting it to 60, 70 feet. You can make pars all day, but you're not going to make birdies. So it was a good thing that I was behind. My mindset would have been different coming in, especially on that back nine, if I had been ahead.

“My second shot into 13 was really when I thought that we can win this thing. I had three birdies in a row before that, then to hit that shot in there, or the two shots, the drive and the second shot, were two of the best all week. And then the putt went in, that was it for me.”

Not quite, of course. The fearsome Road Hole was still left to navigate. And it was there that Smith came closest to stumbling. A fine drive found the elusive fairway, but his approach came up short and left. Which is just about the worst place a golfer who isn’t on the eponymous road can be. Playing relatively safe, Smith putted up and over the back of golf’s most-feared bunker to 12 feet from the flag.

As he had done so many times before, Smith knocked in the putt with an air of casualness that completely belied the seriousness of the situation. Then, after Young had holed for an eagle on the 72nd green, the new Champion Golfer of the Year followed his namesake in from a couple of feet for what proved to be the clinching birdie. The race for low-Cam was over, as was any frustration Smith was feeling about coming close in a couple of previous majors. Twice he has contended without winning at the Masters.

“I've definitely been on that track a few times in my career,” he confirmed. “But I think it just comes down to belief. Again, winning the Players at the start of the year—against the best field in golf—was a really big confidence booster. I knew then it wasn't going to be too long before I got one of these. I've knocked on the door, one too many times now. So it's nice to get it done.”

Indeed, in many ways how Smith became the first Australian to win the Open since Norman in 1993 followed almost exactly his previous scripts. Just outside the top-100 in driving distance and 142nd in accuracy, Smith is only 72nd in greens in regulation. Nevertheless, he sits second in birdie average and fourth in average score. The strokes-gained numbers do not lie either. A lowly 143rd off the tee, Smith sits second in the approach category on the PGA Tour, 12th in putting and, most significantly, ninth overall. His strengths—short game and putting—and relative weakness—driving—are there for all to see.

No matter. Those ups and downs are an almost perfect fit on an Old Course where accuracy off the tee did not always mean simply finding the fairway. As often as not, the ideal line into invariably tucked pins was to be found yards into the rough. Thus, the least reliable part of Smith’s game became almost useful.

“I love this type of golf,” he said. “I think this type of golf suits a lot of Aussies. Aussies are brought up on firm-and-fast fairways and having to hit away from pins. I just felt really good with where my game was at and how the course was set up. And I did a really good job of staying patient this week.”

Amidst the understandable air of celebration, there was one hint of regret. Changing his mind at the last minute, Smith’s father decided not to make the long trip to Scotland.

“He’s definitely kicking himself now,” said Smith the younger. “I really wish he was here too. It would have been such a cool week. It would have been awesome.”

Not to worry too much. In every other way it certainly was.