Perhaps the only sight in golf more annoying than watching the player in front of you make everything he looks at on the greens is watching the player in front of you make everything on the greens while you make nothing all day.
Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Niente.
That was the dismal fate the Golf Gods resigned Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy to at the 150th Open Championship. After three days scintillating golf at The Old Course at St. Andrews, McIlroy had turned back the clock to 2014 when he was in full ascension. The stage was set for him to recapture his former glory, with the whole of the Olde Town applauding as the sun gleamed joyously off the waves of the Firth of Forth.
But on Sunday, Rory’s putter refused to get out of the trunk of his car, and Australia’s Cameron Smith powered past him to steal the Claret Jug from the front seat. Smith fired a sparkling, bogey-free 64 to post a major championship tying 20-under score. Rory he hit every green in regulation, but two-putted them all – a ghastly 36 putts – dropping him to 18-under and third place, behind Cameron Young who surged past McIlroy with a 65 of his own.
Oh, the pain of the one that got away.
“I tried to stay as patient as possible, and I kept hitting good putts. I hit a good putt on 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. I was hitting good putts. They just weren’t dropping,” he admitted glumly. “There’s a lot of putts today where I couldn’t just trust myself to start it inside the hole. I was always starting it on the edge or just outside thinking it was going to move. More times than not, they just sort of stayed there.”
McIlroy started the day at 16-under, tied with Norway’s Viktor Hovland and playing in the final group. The penultimate paring featured the two Camerons, Smith and Young, tied four shots behind at 12-under. Hovland bogeyed the fourth hole, starting a downward spiral from which he never emerged. He posted 74 and slid to a distant tie for fourth at 14-under.
Most pundits had predicted a battle between McIlroy and Hovland, pals and occasional Ryder Cup teammates, and when Rory birdied five he seemed ready to supercharge his round at the short holes from 7-12 and outrun the field. But the supercharge sputtered on the greens. McIlroy turned in 35 and was only two shots clear of Smith, who had birdied the tricky par-4 second and the short par-5 fifth.
Then came the cloudburst: Smith birdied five consecutive holes, from 10-14, and surged into the lead. Now Rory was not only n the defensive, he had to counter in order to keep apace, always remembering the 18th was so short, an eagle was easily in play.
It was the 14th that turned the tide for Smith. Where Rory could not reach the green and two and failed to get up-and-down from a swale about 25 yards short of the green, Smith smashed a 3-wood second shot 310 yards to the back of the green where he two-putted for birdie from 90 feet.
Indeed, Smith did it all with his putter this week. He set a PGA Tour record with 253 feet of putts made on Friday. Do that in a Texas money game and they shoot you on general principle.
His lag putting was nothing short of sensational. From such mind-boggling distances of anywhere from 50-100 feet, he was stone dead. Take for example both the genius and the chutzpah it took to putt a ball snookered by the treacherous Road Bunker around the hazard and using its own contours to funnel the ball where Smith wanted it. Like a skateboarder on the halfpipe, he let the ball ride the lip of the bunker, then pop over the edge, landing softly and nestling next to the cup, laying down like an obedient puppy.
That shot was sublime.
And then, in the crucible of the 72nd second hole ,he closed with one last masterstroke. Though it played the easiest par-4 in exactly a century and a half of Open Championship history, the miniscule 18th played a critical role, particularly a devilish set of swales and humps just before the green that comprise the Valley of Sin.
Nursing a lead and with both Rory and Cameron Young still breathing down his neck, Smith left himself a treacherous leave. The Valley of Sin and its swales and ridges lay diagonally to his direct approach to the hole. The shot needed precision on both direction and speed simultaneously, or who knows where the humps and hollows of the Valley of Sin might swerve it.
It finished one foot from the cup. Cameron, meet the Claret Jug.
Smith joins eleven other Australian golfers to win the Open Championship, including Kel Nagle, Ian Baker-Finch, and Peter Thomson.
As for McIlroy, there is only a gnawing sense of longing and loss. It will eat at him, but in this case what can you do when a guy just runs the table like Minnesota Fats? You can’t tackle him, you can’t trip him, you can’t horse-collar him, you can’t grab his jersey. You can’t intentionally walk him, you can’t hit bean with a pitch, you can’t brush him back with chin music. You can’t hack-a-Shaq him to send him to the free throw line, and you can’t send your third line goons out to rough him up. All you can do is tip your cap and be a good sport.
“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either…if I’d been able to capitalize on the easier holes around the turn – 9, 12, 14 – if I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story,” McIlroy admitted. “But look, I got beaten by a better player this week. 20-under par for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive playing, especially to go out and shoot 64 today to get it done.”