ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The road, the bunker, the hotel, the station shed – and the tee box which is normally off limits. Welcome to one of golf’s craziest holes and one that ultimately decided Sunday’s British Open.
Cameron Smith, who played near-clean golf shooting 8-under par 64 to win the 150th Open at Home of Golf, overcame perhaps his worst shot of the day with a nervous putt across barren grass onto the green from where he potted a 10-foot for par that saved the tournament.
“It wasn’t the best place,” said caddy Sam Pinfield.
Smith didn’t seem alarmed. The Players Championship winner earlier this year, who is known for having a hot putting streak along with wild play off the tee, defeated Round 3 co-leader Rory McIlroy with the help of five straight birdies to earn his first to win major championship.
MORE: Final results, payouts from British Open
It was a tough blow for McIlroy, who didn’t do much wrong in hitting 70 but probably would have made snow angels in that deep bunker off the 17th green to have a bit of the putting ability Smith had during the last round has shown. McIlroy never missed a green and still lost by two.
Smith, meanwhile, needed just 29 putts and seemingly potted them from Edinburgh. He started the day four shots behind McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, birding on the second and fifth holes to stay in touch.
He then started on the 10th and made a five-hole run, taking a lead that he gave up only momentarily. Even when Cameron Young made an eagle on the 18th to briefly equalize, Smith stepped forward calmly and tapped in a 2-footer for the win’s lead – forcing McIlroy to eagle the 18th to equalize.
“Winning an Open Championship per se is probably going to be the highlight of a golfer’s career,” Smith said. “To do it so close to St Andrews is just incredible. This place is so cool. I love the golf course. I love the city.”
A big part of his lore is that pesky 17th Hole, now 495 yards and one that Ben Crenshaw once called the most difficult par 4 in championship golf “because it was designed to be a par 5.”
No one would design such a hole today, although there was fair justice to Tom Morris Sr., who brought it to its present state, and the Lords of the Game, who first planned holes on the course some 500 years ago no hotel then.
The tee for the hole was criticized a few years ago when it was moved back onto land that was not technically on the property. The Old Course Hotel is usually hit by golf balls, including one from Justin Thomas during practice this week. The tee line passes over the old railway shed – the railway line used to run right next to the course – and players often aim using the word “Course” in the Old Course Hotel sign.
Once you get to the green, there’s that ugly roadside bunker on the left, the “road” on the right, and an old wall that’s in play with no relief.
Smith did everything right up to that point, hitting a perfect tee shot down the right line and into the fairway.
“We tried to fly it about 5 meters over the wrong front,” Pinfield said. “We had 9 irons there. He was trying to hit a draw there and he just drew it. It didn’t end in a very good place. That might have been his only missed shot of the last nine. It didn’t look like a great place when we went up. But in the end he got a 4 out of it.”
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Had the ball gone into the bunker, Smith’s distress would have been worse. But that certainly wasn’t great either. There was no direct chipping line to the hole, and keeping it close would be impossible.
So Smith decided to putt.
“The second shot on 17, it’s a really awkward shot, especially where I was,” Smith said. “I kind of had to pull a 9 iron. They’re just trying to get it to 40 or 50 feet anyway. I just didn’t quite commit to the shape I wanted to hit and got it a bit toe-y and flipped a touch more than I wanted.
“Then the putt off the green, I mean I was just trying to get it in at 15ft and the putter felt really good all day. I knew if I could get it in there somewhere, I could do it pretty well.”
Pinfield said the ground is so hard and solid that putting is the preferred option off the greens in most cases. “It was smart play there,” he said. “Usually it’s just the opposite. He’d rather chip it. But he did the right thing.”
Smith rolled the putt next to the bunker and watched it roll onto the green and stop about 10 feet away. He’d taken the disaster out of the game and given himself a chance to make par – which he did. “I kind of got away with a 4,” he said.
And it essentially got him the tournament. Yes, he had to birdie on the 18th to beat Young in one shot, but a bogey there would have changed everything. It would have given McIlroy a chance, and then he might have faced a four-hole playoff with Young.
“It’s massive,” said Australia’s Adam Scott, who shared 15th place and has never won the Open despite some close encounters. “It’s a little bigger than winning the Open. It wins the 150th at St Andrews. We’ve been hearing it all week. Rory called it the Holy Grail. Jack (Nicklaus) said if you don’t win here you’re not great.
“Not only does Cam get the Claret Jug, he gets these very special things alongside it. A 30 on the back nine should be one of them. Pretty incredible, really. Amazing round of golf.”
Smith shot 64 on Friday and played in the final group with Young on Saturday but struggled. He shot 73 and took 35 putts. Nothing would fall.
That changed on Sunday, and that means he was paraded as ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’ late Sunday at the famous course near the 18th hole. He could have won the tournament about 400 yards down the fairway on the 17th; The celebration took place in the shadow of the R&A Clubhouse.
“I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in the mug, that’s for sure,” he said.
Whatever the number, perhaps he took some time to toast the famous 17th along the way.
> What happened to Rory McIlroy at the British Open on Sunday? golf happens
> Cameron Young did all he could with a Sunday 65 at St Andrews but his partner shot 64
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