ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Cameron Smith had just given up his 36-hole lead at The 150th Open. It was time for his caddie, Sam Pinfold, to give a pep talk and help turn the tide.
When Pinfold was finished, Smith smiled at his good friend and, without skipping a beat, replied, “Three or four back, … don’t worry. … We needed to give them a head start anyway.”
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This is the confidence of the young Australian who produced a stunning 64 on Sunday to win The Open, becoming just the fifth Australian to win the Claret Jug and first since 1993. His first major triumph added to wins earlier this year at THE PLAYERS and Sentry Tournament of Champions. He’s moved to No. 2 in both the FedExCup and world ranking in a year that saw him become the only player other than Jack Nicklaus in 1978 to win THE PLAYERS and The Open in the same year. In his Sentry win in January, Smith set the TOUR record for lowest score in relation to par, shooting 34 under. At St. Andrews, he matched that mark for majors and recorded the lowest score ever shot in an Open at St. Andrews, a 20-under 268. And he closed with a remarkable 30 on the back nine, the lowest ever shot by an Open champion.
But back to Smith’s joke. It was a light-hearted response. But there was some wisdom hidden inside it. Smith is – with all due respect – like a mongrel dog fighting over the first bone he’s seen in a month. He’s the ultimate underdog, determined to prove doubters wrong.
Starting Sunday four shots off the lead was enough of a challenge. The fact one of the leaders was Rory McIlroy, Great Britain’s great hope who the crowds were eager to coronate, was a red rag to a bull.
Smith is from Queensland – the northeastern state in Australia known for its beautiful beaches, the Great Barrier Reef, and an ethos of never-say-die toughness. That determination is born out of Smith’s favorite sport other than golf – rugby league – where the Queensland Maroons face the powerhouse New South Wales Blues three times a year in an epic and brutal series of games called State of Origin. It’s tribal.
Queensland is known for often winning against the odds. It has a smaller talent pool to draw from, yet somehow rises above itself when putting on the jersey. One State of Origin game fell on The Open’s eve, and Smith insisted on playing his last nine-hole practice round early in the morning so he could stream the match on his phone at St. Andrews.
The Maroons, missing three key players because of COVID and injuries, were underdogs. Then, in a frenetic opening few minutes of the game they lost two more to concussion. Despite the obstacles, they won 22-12. Pinfold confirmed Smith “drew a lot from that.”
“Never a doubt,” Smith joked about the match at his pre-tournament press conference afterwards. “It’s just another example of the Queensland spirit. I’ll be thinking of that this week for sure.”
The underdog emerged on Sunday at the Old Course. Smith scripted a maroon shirt ahead of his attempt to chase down the local favorite.
After a solid 34 on the front nine, Smith looked up to see he’d only clawed back one shot on McIlroy. The time had come to put up or shut up.
“You’ve got to try and win. That’s what we’re all here to do. I really needed to make something happen,” said Smith, whose gallery included former tennis star Ash Barty and two-time Moto GP champion Casey Stoner.
And so Smith went to work. He nearly drove the par-4 10th to make the first of five straight birdies that put him one ahead of McIlroy. The best one came at the 13th – a hole that had nearly ended his chances a day earlier.
“Those guys are great players. They weren’t going to give it to me. I had to take it,” Smith added. “It was a good thing that I was behind. My mindset would have been a touch different coming in, especially on that back nine, if I was ahead.”
“My second shot into 13 was really when I thought that we can win this thing.”
Pinfold also caught some flak about Saturday’s double bogey on 13. Many suggested he should have called Smith off a risky shot where he attempted to hit his ball while standing in a bunker with the ball above his feet. That shot sailed into a gorse bush, resulting in a double-bogey.
“You don’t mess with a confident player with his skill level,” Pinfold explained. “I’m just so proud of him. His game plan was awesome; he was just really confident and he’s got so much belief it makes my job easy.
“I don’t have to think about a second option, it’s just 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.”
Another of those moments came Sunday at the infamous Road Hole, which ranks as the TOUR’s toughest each time The Open comes to St. Andrews. Smith’s approach came up short, and the hole’s famous greenside bunker stood between his ball and his target. Smith calmly putted his ball up the slope against the edge of the trap, then buried the 10-foot par putt.
When he calmly birdied the last to post 20 under, one shot better than playing partner Cameron Young, only a McIlroy eagle could beat him. But the four-time major winner failed to chip in from just short of the green and victory was secured.
“I feel like I can’t breathe,” he said. “These last four or five holes aren’t easy around here, especially with the wind up off the left. I’m just really proud of how I knuckled down today and managed to get it done.”
“To win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career. To do it around St. Andrews, I think is just unbelievable. This place is so cool.”
Making birdie on the first five holes of the back nine was parallel to how he won THE PLAYERS earlier this year. He birdied the first four holes of TPC Sawgrass’ back nine en route to that win.
“He loves to fight,” Pinfold said. “Put him in a fight, three or four back, and he’s going to step up his game and go for it.”
Another celebration, like the one that followed his PLAYERS win, is expected.
“I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in this thing,” he said about the Claret Jug. “I’m going to guess two, two cans of beer. … I’ll probably have about 20 Claret Jugs.”
He certainly earned it.
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