ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Cameron Smith made eight birdies on the final day of the British Open. His 8-under 64 was the lowest closing round at St. Andrews by the champion golfer of the year. His name on the claret jug includes his score of 268, the best ever on the Old Course.
What defined this tough-as-nails Australian in his greatest moment was a par.
Smith already had done the hard part by running off five straight birdies to start the back nine Sunday, ending the amazing streak with a two-putt from 90 feet over a massive mound that fed to the hole on the par-5 14th, giving him a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy.
That was the score when Smith was on the 17th hole. He was in the fairway some 65 feet from the pin with the notorious Road Hole bunker in the way. Smith used his magic touch with the putter to run it along the edge of the bunker onto the green and made the 10-footer for par.
“He had to be very decisive with that one, because if you're wondering about if the play he's making is correct, I think it's a really hard one,” said Cameron Young, who played with Smith and finished one shot behind him.
“I think it's just another example of why he's one of the very best,” Young added. "He made a really good decision and executed it perfectly. Today kind of just is more proof that he is that good, and he is one of the very, very best players in the world.”
And now Smith has a trophy to show for it.
McIlroy couldn't make a 15-foot birdie putt in the group behind him — he couldn't make anything all day — and Smith effectively ended it with two putts from 80 feet on the final hole to claim his first major.
Even with the claret jug on the table next to him, it all felt so surreal to the 28-year-old Smith. He was working hard on his fitness and his game. He was hopeful of results. He just wasn't necessarily expecting three wins this year, each one raising his profile that speaks to his No. 2 world ranking, a career-best.
The question put to him Sunday evening made him laugh. Assuming someone knew nothing about golf, could he explain the difference between the TPC Sawgrass, where Smith won The Players Championship, and the Old Course?
It might be greater than the difference between filet mignon and haggis.
Smith did his best to go along in describing the Stadium Course, with its island green and deceptive shots, and a centuries-old links course that this week was so brittle and brown the balls rolled faster on the fairways than the greens.
But he also explained his quality as a player.
“I think you have to be two completely different golfers to contend at both of those golf courses,” Smith said.
And he won on both of them — one the strongest field in golf, the other the oldest major in golf. His third win this year came at Kapalua on the Plantation course with its wild changes in elevation and big greens with high wind. He beat Jon Rahm, the No. 1 player in the world.
“I think that’s just where I’m at at the moment,” Smith said. "Towards the end of last year, I had a lot of chances and really didn’t get over the line. I think that made me more eager, I guess, at the start of the year to really knuckle down and try and get over the line.
“For it to happen three times this year is pretty unreal,” he said. “I really wasn't expecting that. I would have been happy with one.”
This was a big one. And it was a big disappointment for McIlroy, who along with Viktor Hovland started the final round tied for the lead. Smith and Young were four behind and by the end of the day, one had the silver claret jug and the other had a silver medal. Young made a 15-foot eagle on the 18th hole for a 65, tied for the lead for as long as it took Smith to tap in for birdie.
McIlroy did very little wrong and hardly anything right. He didn't have many close looks at birdie and the few times he did, they slid by the hole.
The cheers were for McIlroy, immensely popular worldwide and especially this week, the 150th Open at the home of golf, as he tried to end his eight-year itch of watching someone else celebrate a major championship.
He knew Smith had pulled ahead with those five straight birdies.
“I had to dig deep to make birdies. And I just couldn’t,” McIlroy said. "I got beaten by the better player this week. To go out and shoot 64 to win the Open Championship at St. Andrews is a hell of a showing. Hats off to Cam.”
As McIlroy spoke to the media, he had to pause every now and then. The 18th green was behind him. There were cheers from a record crowd as Smith walked onto the green to accept the claret jug and be introduced as “champion golfer of the year.”
“There's a worthy winner right on the 18th green right now,” McIlroy said.
After a performance like that on the Old Course — all year, really — no one could dispute that.
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