Cameron Smith rallies to win British Open for his first major

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Cameron Smith, of Australia, kisses the claret jug trophy as he poses for photographers on the 18th green after winning the British Open golf Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, Sunday July 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Cameron Smith kisses the Claret Jug on the 18th green of the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, on Sunday. (Peter Morrison / Associated Press)

The mullet, the mallet, both were exquisite for Cameron Smith on Sunday as he started the back nine of the Old Course with five birdies in a row and pulled away for victory in the British Open.

The affable Australian, whose Joe Dirt hairstyle makes him identifiable from two par-five holes away, overtook fan favorite Rory McIlroy and held off a late surge by Cameron Young to finish the major championship at 20 under par.

Sizing up the Claret Jug after the trophy presentation, Smith said: “I’m definitely going to find out how many beers it can hold, that’s for sure.”

He later estimated it would hold two beers, and that he probably would celebrate with “about 20 Claret Jugs.”

The leaderboard was dual overhead Cams, as Young finished second at 19 under. One shot behind him was McIlroy, who has yet to win that elusive fifth major after collecting four in quick succession early in his career.

McIlroy, who along with Viktor Hovland came into Sunday with a four-shot lead, didn’t play poorly. He was deadly accurate with his approaches. He just couldn’t make the putts, narrowly missing on several birdie chances as he watched Smith’s plunk into the cup.

“The putter just went a little cold today compared to the last three days,” said McIlroy, who has gone 30 majors since winning his last one in 2014, when he won the British Open and PGA Championship back to back.

Smith is the first Australian to win the British Open since two-time winner Greg Norman in 1993. Norman, commissioner of the controversial LIV Golf Series, was asked by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to stay away for this, the 150th Open Championship.

Meanwhile, there have been persistent rumors that Smith could be among the next competitors to jump ship for the rival league. Clearly uncomfortable when asked about that after Sunday’s win, he didn’t deny the rumors and said that wasn’t on his mind at the moment.

“My team around me worries about all that stuff,” he said. “I'm here to win golf tournaments.”

He did a remarkable job of that in the final round, a day after slipping into a tie for second with a third-round 73.

At the midway point of Sunday’s round, McIlroy had achieved separation with a two-shot edge over Hovland — the Norwegian would finish with a ho-hum 74 — and a three-shot lead on the dueling Camerons.

Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland shake hands on the golf course.
Rory McIlroy, left, and Viktor Hovland shake hands on the 18th green after finishing their final round of the British Open on Sunday. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

But in the inward nine, Smith hit the turbo. He went birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie to take the lead, while the star from Northern Ireland birdied No. 10, then couldn’t sink another birdie putt.

According to ESPN, Smith is the only player in the last 20 years to birdie the first five holes of the back nine in the final round of a major. He sealed the deal with a birdie on No. 18.

“I don't think I hit the ball any differently all four days, to be honest,” Smith said. “I felt like I kept hitting quality golf shots and kept giving myself looks at birdie, even from a distance, which is sometimes what you have to do around here.

“The only difference today, was the putts were dropping. I spent a little bit of time on the green [Saturday] night, and just really wanted to see a few putts go in. Yeah, it turned out it was a pretty good thing to do.”

Smith was in the second-to-last group, so he had to wait for McIlroy to finish before he knew that he had won. That said, McIlroy would have had to eagle No. 18 to force a playoff. Young eagled the final hole to secure the second-place finish.

So when McIlroy’s all-or-nothing chip bounced past the hole, Smith knew the championship was his.

Smith was watching the broadcast from a couch in the scorer’s tent, speaking with his father in Australia.

“Don’t cry,” he told his dad. “You’ll make me cry.”

Later, he lamented that his father decided not to make the trip.

“Yeah, he's definitely kicking himself now,” Smith said. “I really wish he was here too. It would have been such a cool week, even without this [motioning to the Claret Jug], to be at the home of golf. Dad loves his golf as well. It would have been awesome.”

There was synchronicity to this win. During the post-match news conference a reporter informed Smith that Australian Kel Nagle won the 100th Open.

“That’s pretty cool,” Smith said. “I didn’t know that.”

Later, he said: “Hopefully we can keep that trend going with the every 50 years. That would be nice, wouldn't it?”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.