ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The coronation had gone quiet.
Tens of thousands of fans had crammed around the iconic 18th hole at St. Andrews to will their favorite son to victory, but all of a sudden the celebration had gone terribly wrong.
An outside contender had authored a comeback for the ages.
The final group had gone birdie-less for more than 90 agonizing minutes.
And now a last-ditch eagle chip to force a playoff had clambered past the pin.
Rory McIlroy leaned on his putter on the edge of the green, his head down, a few spectators tepidly chanting his name.
This had already been the site of so many pinch-me moments this week at the 150th Open. In Monday’s four-hole Celebration of Champions, McIlroy played alongside his boyhood hero, Tiger Woods, and joked with the other GOAT, Jack Nicklaus. On Friday afternoon, McIlroy strode down the adjacent first fairway as Woods made what is likely his final march up the 18th. With the crowd roaring around him, McIlroy tipped his cap in Woods’ direction, setting off a wave of emotion for the aging warrior. Tied for the lead late Saturday, McIlroy tried to savor his own storybook moment, locking eyes with his wife, young daughter and parents as they watched from the Rusacks Hotel.
McIlroy’s room at the legendary St. Andrews hotel looked out onto the sprawling double fairway, perfectly in line with the giant yellow leaderboard. All week his position, MCILROY, was unmistakable. Of course he imagined how his name would look, alone, come Sunday evening.
“At the start of the day, it was at the top,” he said. “But at the start of tomorrow, it won’t be.”
It wouldn’t even take that long.
By the time he returned to his room Sunday night, another message appeared:
WELL DONE CAMERON
SEE YOU AT ROYAL LIVERPOOL 2023
Three shots behind McIlroy as he made the turn on a benign afternoon, Cameron Smith blistered the ancient links with five birdies in a row to shoot 64 and win by a shot over rookie Cameron Young. Failing to birdie that drivable par-4 finisher, McIlroy sat alone in third after a two-birdie 70, the second-worst score of anyone in the top 14. The ominous message scribbled Sunday morning on the chalkboard outside the Dunvegan Hotel had proved prophetic.
“To ALL Rory Fans,” it read, “Don’t Throw the Confetti Yet!”
Smith was The Open's halfway leader but had fallen off the pace with a Saturday 73, an ugly round that dropped him four shots back and sent him straight to the practice putting green afterward to rekindle the magic. Known more for his mullet than any major moments, Smith had elevated to a new level this year by rededicating himself in the weight room and addressing his erratic driver. He flashed his potential in the 2022 lid-lifter at Kapalua, where he shot a record 33 under and outlasted the world No. 1. Then he showed his fearlessness at The Players, where he pulled off a series of gutsy shots on the watery closing stretch to defeat the strongest field in golf. The underappreciated Aussie had climbed as high as No. 3 in the world, and now he was vying for his second major title this year.
“He doesn’t have that wow-factor when you look at him,” Viktor Hovland said. “It’s just unbelievable how he’s able to get the ball in the hole. He’ll hit a bad shot and it just doesn’t seem to bother him, because he knows that he’s going to hit a great next shot. That’s what golf is all about.”
Here at St. Andrews, Smith holed a mind-boggling (and unofficial record) 253 feet worth of putts in a second-round 64, but he’d gone dry a day later with just two birdies on a day ripe for scoring.
Failing to keep pace, Smith turned to caddie Sam Pinfold with a few holes left in the third round. “Don’t worry,” Smith told him. “I needed to get my head started anyway.”
“It just shows his massive belief, his confidence,” Pinfold would say later. “It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s just a belief in his game.”
With reporters mostly focused on McIlroy’s next best chance at a major, Smith answered just six questions and headed to the putting green. “The best thing I did all week was go out there and spend five minutes,” he said. With dusk falling, he watched putt after putt drop into the center of the cup. His stroke was grooved for an improbable Sunday sprint. “That kind of put me at ease to know that it really wasn’t me. It was just kind of one of those days.”
Also comforting was the fact that his biggest threat was about to encounter one of the most consequential rounds of his major career.
On this stage, at this Open, at this moment, it felt like McIlroy’s time had finally arrived. His peers sensed it, too.
“He’s got to stop all of those questions, right?” Paul Casey said. “That’d be a relief for him, and it might be a springboard. Look at how good he is. Can you say he’s underperformed? He’s so good.”
It's a fair criticism. Though he continues to rack up significant achievements – world No. 1, FedExCup titles, more than a dozen worldwide victories – in the legacy events Mcllroy has been unable to access the gifts and the freedom that define his regular-season play. In a more than five-year span, he broke par in the opening round of majors just five times in 21 chances, often dooming his bids before they ever really began. Only when the pressure was gone could he roar into contention with his familiar strut and swagger. It was a disorienting bit of stage fright for the audacious wunderkind who had captured four majors by 25.
But through each misstep and setback, McIlroy has endeavored to let us in on his process of self-discovery. Whereas Woods often stiff-armed reporters who wanted glimpses into his inner sanctum, McIlroy always opened a vein, perhaps to his own detriment. In interviews over the years, he illuminated his many inner battles: whether he should place more emphasis on the majors, or treat them as no big deal; whether he should adopt his typical brand of aggressiveness, or ease into the week by playing more conservatively; whether his well-roundedness and general contentment in life kept him from unlocking the savage streak that had once accompanied his awe-inspiring routs.
This year he has struck the right balance, opening with rounds in the 60s in each of the last three majors, including a 66 this week at St. Andrews. But to hear McIlroy, there wasn’t some great epiphany. This was simply the byproduct of some of the best golf of his life.
“I’m pretty good at this game. I think I know what I’m doing,” he said earlier this week in a rare bit of bravado. “I needed to take ownership of it again.”
But McIlroy hasn’t just been a golf story this year, front and center on Sunday afternoons; he’s also garnered attention early in the week, too. As the former chairman of the Player Advisory Council and one of the game’s most thoughtful voices, McIlroy has served as the de facto spokesman for the Tour in its ongoing culture war against LIV Golf. McIlroy was among the first to spurn the Saudis in 2020, when he said that he wanted to be on the right side of history, but that was before the competitive landscape grew complicated. As LIV has morphed from rumor to reality, it’s McIlroy – not commissioner Jay Monahan – who has become the public face for the Tour. Each tournament start now he carries around that burden – not just to strike the right shots on the course but also the proper tone in the interview room. On Tour matters. On the controversial source of the LIV funding. On the best path forward.
McIlroy has insisted that he has not traded in his Nike lid for a white hat, that he’s not playing for more than himself. But his peers, who long have admired his game and grace, now have an even greater sense of appreciation for his efforts. “I don’t think it’s a burden for him – it’s a responsibility that he’s taken and has run with,” said Tony Finau, who has known McIlroy since the late-1990s. “He hasn’t shied away from the tough questions. How he feels. Being vulnerable. I think that’s truly who he is. I’ve always been a big fan of Rory’s.”
That compelling backdrop added even more weight to this historic major, but Mcllroy was unable to meet the moment Sunday at the Old Course.
He failed to birdie the drivable ninth. He didn’t capitalize on the short 12th. He didn’t take care of the par-5 14th. The lusty crowd groaned at each squandered chance on the defenseless links.
Hitting every green in regulation, McIlroy's lone highlights came on two-putt birdies.
“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today,” he said, “but I didn’t do much right either.”
Just ahead of him, Smith had done the unthinkable, ripping off five birdies in a row to snag the solo lead, his putter molten-hot.
“He’s just got so much belief and confidence,” Pinfold said. “It makes my job easier because I don’t have to think about a second option. It’s: What’s the best shot; what’s the best option; then point, shoot and go. He just has the balls and courage to stand up and do it.”
The only hint of trouble for Smith came on the treacherous 17th, when his approach left him short and left of the green. Unable to go directly at the flag, he swatted his putt up the hill, around the Road Hole bunker, and then – of course – made the 10-foot comebacker to remain blemish-free. A gut-check birdie on the last gave him an inward 30 and put him in the record books at 20-under 268, the lowest score to par at a St. Andrews Open.
The only question was whether he’d be joined at that number.
Walking off the final green, Smith and Pinfold turned to watch McIlroy uncork his drive on the 72nd hole. An eagle-2 to tie was certainly feasible – Smith had just watched Young accomplish the feat, to post 19 under – and now the game’s best driver was having a crack at the green.
“I was just looking at the pin to make sure that no one got too close to that,” Pinfold said.
But it wasn’t even close. McIlroy’s drive finished 27 yards short of the green, before the Valley of Sin, a devilish angle from which to attack.
“Still, it’s Rory McIlroy,” Pinfold said. “You never know what he’s going to do. You’re never safe until you’re safe.”
With thousands of fans piling into the fairway behind him, McIlroy’s must-make eagle pitch checked into the ridge and then skittered past the flag, rolling out another 15 feet. He dejectedly handed his club to caddie Harry Diamond and then twirled his putter in his hand. After marking his ball, he headed to the edge of the green, his head down, the last four hours a blur.
Folks watching on the balcony above the Rusacks Hotel headed back inside. Fans began streaming toward South Street, eager for a pint. Looking toward the grandstand, McIlroy seemed to linger on the green for an extra beat; he'll likely be in his 40s when The Open next returns here.
“Whenever you put yourself in that shining light, you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures,” he said. “Today is one of those times. But I just have to dust myself off and come again and keep working hard and keep believing.”
As he spoke, the leaderboard changeover was already underway. Smith was on the 18th green, being introduced as the Champion Golfer of the Year.
“I don’t know what to say,” Smith said, clutching the claret jug. “I’m speechless.”
McIlroy couldn’t find the words, either. He took a seat in the second row of a waiting golf cart, next to his wife, Erica. As the cart chugged down the path, he removed his hat and slumped onto her shoulder. This wasn’t at all what he had imagined.