On the 10th tee, with the wind at his back and his fate in his hands, Cameron Smith decided that he was not going to die wondering. What followed, over the next two hours, was quite possibly the finest back nine in the history of major championships. A quintuple of birdies, coupled with an icily-composed putt around the rim of the Road Hole bunker, constituted a devastating salvo to which Rory McIlroy had no answer.
It was an object lesson in the philosophy required to seize prizes of this magnitude. Where McIlroy toiled to defend a lead, Smith snatched the glory with a nerveless audacity. “Being behind in certain situations is maybe a good thing,” he reflected. “It’s very easy to get defensive out there and keep hitting it to 60, 70ft. You can make pars all day, but you’re not going to make birdies.”
When it needed it most, this laconic Australian, who has been unwinding in his St Andrews hotel room each night with episodes of Peaky Blinders, unearthed his winning instinct, surging past McIlroy with a display of inexorable, irresistible brilliance. The only regret was that his father, Des – a printer from suburban Brisbane who would start work at 6am to ensure that young Cameron could squeeze in a few holes each day before tea – was not here to witness it in the flesh.
Des had decided, he explained, that a 20,000-mile round trip was difficult to justify for one week of golf. But few such weeks culminate in the spectacle of your son lifting the Claret Jug with the Auld Grey Toon as a backdrop. Perhaps Smith Snr should have seen the historical portents: just as Kel Nagle grasped the Centenary Open on this stage in 1960, his young successor ensured that another grand anniversary, the 150th, would fall into Australian hands. “This one’s for Oz,” he said on the 18th green, the galleries stretching as far as he could see.
Spectators were falling over each other to secure a vantage point, some even leaping across the Swilcan Burn to follow McIlroy’s forlorn walk up the 18th in the final pairing. By that stage, Smith had inflicted decisive damage, reaching 20 under par, a record-equalling total in majors, courtesy of the devil-may-care spirit that has become his trademark.
At the turn, it had looked as if this tournament was McIlroy’s to lose. But therein lay the problem: where McIlroy was conservative, desperate to eliminate any dropped shots from his scorecard, Smith was boldness personified, attacking every pin and draining every crucial putt.
As he began his homeward half, he knew that he trailed a four-time major champion by three. It looked too daunting a deficit to erase. In Smith’s mind, it was a task of seductive simplicity. Asked before this round how he intended to attack it, he shrugged: “Just try to make a ton of birdies.” He was as good as his word, feathering a delicious putt to close range at the short par-four for an easy birdie. By the time he poured in a 15-footer for a two at the hazardous 11th, he had closed the gap to two.
There is a remorselessness about Smith once he finds his range on the greens. He spends 20 minutes every day in front of a mirror so that he perfects the same set-up position each time. The benefit of such assiduousness was plain to see on the Old Course, as Smith morphed into a human metronome. Wriggling in another putt from 12 feet at the 12th, he set off a roar that McIlroy, one hole behind, heard all too clearly. With a fourth consecutive birdie putt dropping in at the 13th, which he had double-bogeyed 24 hours earlier, the momentum swing was all but irreversible. His putter was not so much hot as molten.
Even at 616 yards, the 14th is essentially a par-four for somebody of Smith’s length. So it proved, as he walked off with his fifth birdie in a row, a sequence that nobody else in the field managed all day. He had just one more obstacle to negotiate: the dastardly Road Hole, where a gruesome bunker, a shale path and a dry-stone wall lay in wait to derail his charge.
A nervous groan swept through the crowds as his approach leaned to the left, leaving his route to the pin blocked by the sand. A pitch was fraught with danger: if he caught it even a touch thin, he risked skidding through the green and making bogey or worse. And so, with astonishing clear-sightedness, he reached for the flat stick, judging the weight and direction immaculately to set up the all-important par putt from 10 feet – which, naturally, he sank dead centre.
Smith knew, as he thrashed one last drive up the vast expanse of the 18th fairway, that the strike was pure and true. Inscrutable all day, he broke into the widest grin, walking off at 20-under, eclipsing even Tiger Woods’ record St Andrews score from 2000. Here was an Open champion of impeccable pedigree, whose voice quavered with emotion as he delivered his victory speech.
Sadly, nothing in golf’s ever-changing landscape comes without an asterisk. No sooner had the dust settled on arguably the most astounding back-nine burst in majors than Smith grew angry and upset at a question in his press conference about whether he was poised to join the defectors to Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf. “I just won the Open, and you’re asking about that,” he shot back. Tellingly, alas, there was no denial. Even on a day that brought one of golf’s most memorable achievements, Smith remained a complicated hero.