Smith rallies to win The Open, and validation, at St. Andrews

By Jerry Briggs
For The JB Replay

In the last 48 hours, Cameron Smith’s emotions have ranged from guarded optimism, to cringe-inducing despair and, finally, to sheer joy and slight disbelief.

It was a ride he’ll always remember.

Smith, a 28-year-old Florida resident from Australia, claimed his first major golf title in stunning fashion Sunday, rallying past one of the biggest names in the sport to win the 150th anniversary of The Open at St. Andrews.

Trailing by four shots entering the last round, Smith drained a number of long putts and produced a 64 on the legendary, par-72 Old Course to claim the Claret Jug trophy.

He joined the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning The Open in Scotland at St. Andrews, which is considered the home of golf for its history as a place where people first played the game.

“It’s just unreal,” he told NBC television. “This place is so cool. To have the 150th Open here, and to walk away with the win, is something that I’ve dreamt of. I didn’t know (if I’d ever) get this far, and, it’s just awesome.”

Smith fashioned an eight-birdie, zero-bogey final round to finish at 20 under par, beating playing partner Cameron Young (-19) and rallying past crowd favorite and third-round leader Rory McIlroy (-18).

Entering the final round, McIlroy was tied for the lead at minus 16, but the four-time, major winner failed to generate much momentum. Trailing by two on the par-four 18th, McIlroy needed an eagle to tie and force a playoff.

But a second-shot iron from the fairway rolled well past the pin, eliminating him from contention.

“I had a great opportunity today to add to that major (championship) tally, and I didn’t quite get it done,” McIlroy told NBC sports. “I didn’t feel like I did many things wrong, but the putter just sort of went cold on me.”

At the end, on the 18th fairway, a stunning development came when Young hit a tee shot to the green and into eagle territory. Later, the 25-year-old from New York sank the putt and reached 19 under.

Smith was forced to make birdie to break the tie, and he did, tapping in for the one-stroke lead. From there, Smith and Young walked into the clubhouse, waiting for McIlroy to finish.

As McIlroy misfired on his approach to 18, the championship was decided, and the TV cameras went to Smith, who was hugging people. He was the winner.

In a couple of interviews with NBC, he thanked a group of fans from Australia who showed up to support him.

Grinning, Smith also suggested that his victory might prompt a celebration in which the Claret Jug might be employed to hoist a few beers.

For Smith, the tournament had its twists and turns.

He opened with a 67 on Thursday and followed with a 64 on Friday. Coming into Saturday with a two-stroke lead, he endured a tough round in which he double-bogeyed a hole on the back nine and shot 73.

Pain was etched on his face during — and after — the double bogey on the 13th hole.

Coming to the course on Sunday, he told NBC that he just wanted to play it smart off the tee.

“Where we could get on the fairway and give myself a look at birdie,” Smith said. “The putter felt good all week. They didn’t quite all go in yesterday, and today, they were all going in.”

Entering the tournament week, much of the talk centered on Tiger Woods’ return to the Old Course. Could he win again?

Others mentioned as potential favorites included Masters winner Scottie Scheffler and McIlroy, the Nos. 1-2 players in the world rankings. Xander Schauffele had two two straight tournaments and was one of the darkhorses.

There wasn’t much discussion at all about Smith, the No. 6 player in the world who finished tied for third at the Masters, 13th at the PGA and missed the cut at the U.S. Open.

In the end, the winner of the Players Championship earlier this year found validation, and some other intangibles, as well.

“To win it here,” Smith said. “is pretty special.”

Smith hopes to prove he belongs atop The Open leaderboard

By Jerry Briggs
For the JB Replay

The first seven names atop the leaderboard at the 150th Open Championship include some of the world’s most accomplished golfers. Major championship winners. Title holders who have experienced the feeling of holding the world’s No. 1 ranking. Legends who have collected vast amounts of prize money.

Australia native Cameron Smith can’t check off all of those boxes. But he does have something that the others would like to achieve. It is the ‘No. 1’ aside his name among leaders of a prestigious tournament that reached the halfway point Friday on the Old Course, at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Smith, from Brisbane, Australia, paces the field at 13-under par going into Saturday’s third round. He leads by two strokes over Cameron Young, a PGA Tour rookie from New York, and by three over two others, including crowd favorite Rory McIlroy, the world’s second-ranked player who has won four major championship titles.

Other major winners in striking distance include Dustin Johnson, who is in fifth place, four shots off the pace, and Scottie Scheffler, a former University of Texas standout, who is five back and in a two-way tie for sixth.

Yes, it is true that Young (-11), McIlroy and Viktor Hovland (both -10), Johnson (-9) and Scheffler and Tyrell Hatton (both -8) all have enjoyed hot streaks and have wowed the galleries this week at St. Andrews. None, however, have matched the overall sizzle and consistency that Smith has displayed in the past few days.

Smith, in fact, has produced a two-day score of 131 that is the best in the history of the Open at St. Andrews after the opening two rounds. His 36-hole score is better by one stroke than the 132 posted by Nick Faldo and Greg Norman in 1990 and matched in 2010 by Louis Oosthuizen.

After Friday’s drama, Smith told reporters in Scotland that he would try to relax between now and his afternoon tee time Saturday. He said he’d go out to dinner with countryman Adam Scott to celebrate Scott’s birthday. He said he’d come back to his hotel and watch “Peaky Blinders,” a British drama about gangsters in the early 20th century.

One online review says of “Peaky Blinders,” that it’s a “resounding victory for style over substance.” So be it. Smith will take it all in, sleep late on Saturday and then perhaps go to the gym for a morning workout. The man with both the style and the substance in his game will then report to St. Andrews. Still looking for his first major title, the No. 6 player in the world is in charge of the 150th Open Championship until further notice.

Ultimately, by Sunday, the 28-year-old resident of Jacksonville, Fla., hopes to hoist the Claret Jug trophy, to boost that ranking just a little bit, and to cement his legacy among those considered the best in the game.