LIV, Mullets, and an unexpected farewell to Tiger?
The main story in the final major of the year on the Old Course at St Andrews had to be Cam Smith storming home over the last nine holes in 30 to take the Claret Jug. He also became the first Champion Golfer of the Year to score two rounds of 64 in the same event.
The attendance of 290,000 spectators smashed another record at an event run on a grand scale by the R&A. Running in parallel with Smith’s exceptional performance were other stories that made the 150th one of the most interesting Opens in the oldest major’s long history.
LIV Golf was on everyone’s lips - from players to the media and spectators. Greg Norman was being Greg Norman, by asking for a special exemption to play in the event. His request may be viewed as nothing other than a publicity grab. He has not played competitive golf for years and was seven years past the age limit (60) set for guaranteed entry to past champions. The R&A was never going to accede to his request and went even further by announcing ‘’we contacted Greg Norman to advise him that we had decided not to invite him to attend the Celebration of Champions or the Champions Dinner’’. Norman described the banning recently as a ‘’petty, cheap, childish shot’’.
LIV convert, Phil Mickelson, looked out of sorts during Open week and chose not to participate in either of the events for past winners. When questioned by media about his non-attendance Mickelson bristled and said ‘’let it go, dude. Let it go’’. He looked scruffy and disengaged in the process of missing the cut by five shots and was logo-less after being abandoned by his sponsors.
Several other LIV players received chilly, or even hostile receptions. Ian Poulter was booed on the 1st tee of the first round and snap hooked his tee shot close to the out of bounds on the left of the 100-yard-wide fairway. He salvaged par, proved his strength of character by scoring 69 in his first-round and professed not to have even heard the booing. Patrick Reed showed up with an appropriately black hat emblazoned with a large silver LIV logo. He wore a look of mild amusement that helped diffuse any spectator disapproval. Poulter and Reed slipped steadily down the leader board as the event progressed.
And what of the game’s greatest and most influential player of the current era -Tiger Woods? Woods was clearly restricted by pain and was out of the event after 78 in the first round. His 36-hole score of nine over par beat only six of the 156 players in the field.
Has St Andrews seen the last of Woods? The stage for farewelling greats of the game is the venerable stone Swilcan Bridge crossing the burn on Tom Morris, the home hole. As Woods walked towards the bridge, he became aware that his caddie Joe LaCava, and playing partners Max Homa and Matthew Fitzpatrick, had dropped well behind him. It was as though they sensed this was an unscripted farewell to Woods at the Old Course, and possibly to the Open itself. Woods was clearly emotional and wiped away tears as he navigated the last fairway. Uncertainty surrounds the Open rota at present with only the next three events being scheduled at specific venues. Traditionally the Old Course hosts the event every five years, so 2027 is likely to be the earliest for the event to be back at St Andrews. The 15-time major champion, Woods, clearly doubts that his injuries will allow him to play in the event again at St Andrews.
And what of the course? Weeks of warm and dry weather before the 150th Open made the course hard and fast. The almost windless conditions left the Old Course with extremely limited defences against low scoring. It was playing far shorter than its 7297 yards (the same length as 2015). Five of the par 4s (the 7th,9th, 10th, 12th and 18th holes) were either driveable or close to driveable for many players. For instance, Jordan Spieth is not one of the longest players on tour, but he comfortably reached the 371-yard seventh hole with his drive in the last round leaving himself a 12-foot putt for an eagle 2.
The R&A did their best to stiffen the test with difficult pin positions on the last two days. Keeping such a large field moving was also a challenge. The length of rounds stretched out to well over five hours as players had to wait on the tee for the groups immediately in front of them to clear the shorter par 4 greens. Further complications arose around the holes that cross over each other (the 7th over the 11th) or where there were two pin positions set near each other on the seven double greens, servicing 14 holes.
It would be heresy to suggest that the Old Course may no longer be capable of hosting an Open Championship, but an answer may lie in the hands of the governing bodies. Should The R&A and the USGA be jointly considering the possible limiting of the distance the ball can travel? This is no recent phenomenon - in four seasons from 2000 to 2003 inclusive the median driving distance on the PGA Tour increased by 5% - almost 15 yards. Unless action is taken to wind back the distance of the golf ball, classic courses such as the Old Course are surely in danger of becoming redundant as venues for future championships? Iconic courses such as Merion and Prestwick have already been discarded and more are likely to follow without regulation of the ball. Tennis went through a process to slow the ball in 2001 for the good of the sport – why not golf?
Moving on from LIV Golf, the course, and the ball, the Open itself built to a memorable climax on the final afternoon. Rory McIlroy looked like everyone’s favourite after the first three rounds. The Irishman had been winless in majors for eight years. At 16 under after rounds of 66 68 66 he and Victor Hovland had a joint four-shot lead over the two Cameron’s - Smith and Young. Cam Smith had severely diluted his 64 in the second round with a struggling 73 in the third round.
On the final afternoon Hovland started poorly and fell out of contention almost immediately with a 74. Smith was handily placed after nine at two under for the round but still three shots behind McIlroy. That is when the fireworks started, as Smith started the back nine with five birdies in a row. His wedge play to the tricky pin positions was sublime. This type of golf is his specialty with his great touch from 100 yards in. On a course with an effective par of about 68 McIlroy’s last round of 70 was just not good enough. He looked frustrated and defensive at times. It may be possible he had become distracted from golf by his self-appointed advocacy role against LIV.
Cameron Young made a last-minute grab for the title with an eagle on the 18th and was home in 31 for a 65 to finish runner-up. McIlroy blew his makeable birdie chance on the 17th and failed to birdie the 18th and the tournament was Smith’s. His sole crisis on a back nine containing 6 birdies came on the toughest hole on the course, the 495-yard Road hole where he pulled his 9 iron second shot to the left of the green. He then skirted the bunker with a rollercoaster approach putt to 10 feet and calmly holed his par-saving putt to maintain his one-shot lead. He did all that was required on the 18th with a birdie 3 to win.
The mullet wearing Smith is a low-key character – and a proud Aussie. He deflected a question from a journalist at his final press conference on his LIV intentions. He batted it away unanswered by saying it was ‘’not that good a question’’. By then, he must have been in negotiations with LIV CEO, and double Open champion, Norman. The pressure on Smith in the final round may have been increased with his knowledge that entry into future majors could become more challenging for him after his signing with LIV. Whatever the future holds for him, Cam Smith was a worthy Champion Golfer of the Year.
There was also a nice piece of symmetry in the 2022 result.
Australian Kel Nagle won the Centenary Open at St Andrews in 1960, and 62 years later at The Home of Golf, his countryman Cameron Smith captured another landmark Open, the 150th.
Geoff Saunders attended the 150th Open for The Cut Golf and had R&A Media accreditation.