Talent demands a price, and great golfers know that sooner or later they have to pay for their gifts with a dip in performance that drags them back towards the field, where lesser mortals toil. Cameron Smith found himself in that Gethsemane on Saturday, but was determined not to suffer there on Sunday. And so it came to pass. Redemption and acclamation at last.
What a magnificent win it was, fashioned from solid, long drives in mostly still air, astute selection of landing spots with his laser-like irons and some quite spectacular putting, his sword and shield, for an eight-under-par 64 to go with 67, 64 and 73 for a four-round total of 268. Five birdies in a row on the back nine (among eight on the day) first caught then consumed Rory McIlory, who had led alone from the 4th to the 12th before the Australian slipped past him. It left the gallery stunned, the Irishman bereft.
Surely the Mullet King can afford a haircut and shave now. Maybe he won’t bother. He is very much his own man.
Of the 14 allowed clubs in a bag, the flat stick is the most temperamental – but not, usually, for Smith, who is scarily cool from any distance. Yet it had gone strangely cold on day three, as he struggled against the course and his own game after rounds of 67 and 64, drifting out to a 73, with just two birdies, a double bogey and bogey. That left him four shots adrift of McIlroy and Viktor Hovland.
He does not dwell much on the past, but Smith surely wanted more consistency than at the Masters in 2020, where he bookended eight birdies on day one with two double bogeys for a 68. That is eccentric golf, by any standards. It did not stop Gary Player describing him in typically avuncular tones as “one hell of a putter”. Indeed, he is: the best in the world, by informed consensus.
Smith pushed his opening birdie chance inches wide from 30 feet, but conditions could hardly have been more benign: virtually windless and a little softer under foot after a cleansing shower. Smith struck on the 2nd, drilling his first birdie from eight feet.
He had to play aggressively off tee and fairway to close the gap but could not afford a blow-up of Augusta proportions.
The rising American Cameron Young joined him at 13 under on the 4th, as pressure built inside and outside their bubble. They both birdied the 5th, Young with a tap-in after a monster eagle attempt, Smith, similarly, after putting his first putt to within a foot from 88 feet. They were two shots from the lead – until McIlroy went to 17 under with his first birdie of the day.
On these extraordinarily large greens, many of them shared, Smith kept lagging like a king. On six he covered at least a couple of cricket pitches for a one-foot par putt. Getting the first effort that close takes as much judgment and touch as a tiddler, a micro-drive, if you like.
But the early vibe of hope and possibility momentarily faded as they approached the turn, and when he missed a 12-foot birdie on 9 that he would have taken on either of the first two days, a sense of tightness fell on his shoulders. It did not last long. Three strokes behind McIlroy, he accelerated his attack against devilishly placed pins on greens with more undulations than an untidy duvet.
Then Smith and Young made their move on 10, cutting the deficit to two shots with rock-solid birdies that injected the closing charge with bags of electricity under cloying skies. When the Australian wizard dropped in a 16-footer on the tricky par-three 11th to edge a shot closer, his joy lasted less than a minute as McIlroy replied with a birdie on the hole behind him.
There was not a moment in which to look away, a captivating drama rolling towards a still unknown finish. With seven and eight holes left for the main players, there were at least four possible endings to the story once Dustin Johnson squandered a birdie chance up ahead on 14.
Smith was the obvious threat, his putter cutting the air and the atmosphere like a hot knife through butterscotch. He let out an audible, “aargh!” when a long, difficult eagle attempt over a hump on 12 braked early. But a fourth birdie on the spin, from 13ft on 13, put him alongside McIlroy, who wasted a birdie chance on 12.
On the 14th, the man with the plain name and the uncommon skills gobbled up most of the 614 yards in two mighty heaves, then plopped in his fifth successive birdie – his best of the day, after a stunning eagle attempt of 87ft, unsighted, from the far side of the giant green over another hillock. “That was amazing touch,” Nick Faldo observed.
The championship was Smith’s to lose. With four holes left, McIlroy was stuck in second gear, waiting for a break. Young, a travelling companion for much of the weekend, was in Smith’s rear view mirror, but dangerous still. Hovland had fallen off his bicycle further back down the road.
On the Road Hole, Smith chose to putt precariously past the greenside bunker, skirting around a sharp drop into the sand – and placed it perfectly in view of the flag for par. When he drained a 10-footer for par, Laura Davies remarked: “If he goes on to win, that’s the best two-putt of his life.”
And then a climax to end all climaxes: Young emerged from nowhere to eagle the 18th and parity with his namesake, before Smith responded with what was now a routine birdie to wrap it up.
McIlroy needed eagle on 18 to force a play-off. But there were only so many miracles on offer this Sunday.
July 18, 2022 at 01:27AM Kevin Mitchell at St Andrews