It seemed like Sunday at the 2022 Open Championship was setting up to be a coronation for crowd-favorite Rory McIlroy at St. Andrews.
Cameron Smith decided to crash the party.
The Australian shot a blistering eight-under 64 in the final round to win the first major of his career at 20 under. He was four strokes behind McIlroy and Viktor Hovland at the start of play but came roaring back with five birdies in a row on the back nine and outlasted the former by two strokes and Cameron Young by one:
1. Cameron Smith, -20
2. Cameron Young, -19
3. Rory McIlroy, -18
It looked to be a two-man showdown coming into the final round with McIlroy and Hovland paired together and four strokes clear of Smith and Young. McIlroy was the crowd favorite at the Scottish course as he attempted to break a major championship drought dating to 2014 and win the fifth of his career.
On a course littered with birdies, drivable par-fours and low scores, steady pars were not going to be enough to win the Claret Jug. Hovland found that out the hard way with 10 pars and one bogey in the first 11 holes before his first birdie on No. 12 and gradually faded as the tournament continued on his way to a two-over 74.
That, along with McIlroy consistently two-putting and missing some birdie chances even as he avoided mistakes, opened the door for a comeback.
Smith was happy to oblige and took full advantage with the five straight birdies from Nos. 10 through 14. He was suddenly in first place by himself with an opportunity to win a major title for the first time and put close calls with four previous top-five finishes behind him.
NBC Sports @NBCSports
Cameron Smith's fourth consecutive birdie ties Rory McIlroy for the lead at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheOpen?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheOpen</a> at -18.<br><br>📺: <a href="https://twitter.com/nbc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NBC</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/peacockTV?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@peacockTV</a><br>💻: <a href="https://t.co/qerp9TmWfN">https://t.co/qerp9TmWfN</a><a href="https://t.co/cDNqAtkzfP">pic.twitter.com/cDNqAtkzfP</a>
Golf Channel @GolfChannel
Cameron Smith's putter is on fire! 🔥<br><br>Another birdie at the 11th moves him to within just one shot of the lead at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheOpen?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheOpen</a>.<br><br>📺: <a href="https://twitter.com/nbc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@nbc</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/peacockTV?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@peacockTV</a> <br>💻: <a href="https://t.co/DhnlOakkwG">https://t.co/DhnlOakkwG</a> <a href="https://t.co/XFzqF52AeA">pic.twitter.com/XFzqF52AeA</a>
There would be no blinking in the face of pressure, and never was that clearer than the 17th.
Smith overcame a poor approach shot with a borderline-ridiculous up-and-down with the putter from behind a bunker to preserve his one-stroke lead in stunning fashion. All he did from there was birdie the 18th to complete a back-nine 30 in a performance that will be remembered for ages.
That final birdie proved to be a monster one because Young drove the par-four green and eagled the 18th to temporarily tie his playing partner before the champion fittingly sunk his final putt.