ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Fewer than two hours after Cameron Smith had stood in front of the imposing R&A clubhouse and been declared the champion golfer of the year, the Old Course at St. Andrews was a public park again.
A couple hundred people ambled across the first and 18th fairways, some with their dogs and some headed to the Swilcan Bridge where a security guard monitored a line of visitors patiently waiting for their selfie moment.
The 150th Open Championship, as much a celebration as a competition, had been an overwhelming success, engulfing the ancient town and offering a memorable reminder of how good championship golf can be.
It answered multiple questions:
Is there a better player on and around the greens than Smith?
Can the Old Course still challenge the best players in the world?
Yes, when it’s firm and fast like it was during the Open. It would have helped had the wind blown like it typically does, but the fact that Smith shot 20-under par spoke to how well he played.
Fears of someone shooting 60 or better never materialized. A handful of players shot 64 but the quirks that define the Old Course did their part. It’s like nothing else and while it is rumored to be eight years before the Open Championship returns there, it will be worth the wait.
Is Cameron Young the next big thing?
He’s already a big thing. His runner-up finish in the Open Championship was his fourth second-place this season to go with a pair of third-place finishes. Young has jumped to 19th in the world rankings and he’s still a rookie on the PGA Tour.
Young missed the cut at the Players Championship, the Masters and the U.S. Open but he tied for third at the PGA Championship and his closing eagle at the Old Course felt like a statement moment.
“I think I handled it pretty well,” Young said of his final-round 65 that included 31 on the final nine holes. “I’ve at least been around the lead a lot this year … so it’s not the first time I’ve been in that situation.
“The more I put myself there, I think I said at the PGA that one of these times I’ll shoot 5 under on the back and it will be enough. (Sunday) I did, and it wasn’t. So I guess one of these times I’ll shoot 6 under on Sunday and that will be enough.”
How good was this major-championship season?
Pretty darned good.
Scottie Scheffler’s victory at the Masters stamped him as a star and he looks every bit the part of No. 1 in the world. He has the game to play anywhere and with his demeanor, Scheffler looks like he’s just getting started.
Justin Thomas’ victory in the PGA Championship reaffirmed him as one of the best players of his generation while the U.S. Open was a glittering success, not just for Matthew Fitzpatrick but for The Country Club. It was everything the U.S. Open can be.
As for the Open Championship, the glow will linger for a long time.
Like the many visitors who came and went from St. Andrews and were left wondering where their golf clubs or various pieces of luggage might be, major-championship season ended with some unanswered questions.
Was this Rory McIlroy’s most disappointing near-miss in a major?
Not necessarily. There are any number of swings he’d like to have back over the past eight years that may have changed the narrative. But this one – starting Sunday four clear of the man who beat him and failing to have a single one-putt green – does have a lingering burn.
McIlroy didn’t play great on Sunday, but this was a case of someone else – Smith – playing better. While history will show Smith won the 150th Open, McIlroy owned the hearts start to finish and beyond not just because of how he plays but because of who he is.
Consider this: McIlroy led Smith by two strokes when he reached the 10th tee on Sunday, McIlroy birdied the 10th and didn’t make a bogey coming in but still lost by two.
McIlroy found just one bunker in 72 holes and he holed his bunker shot for an eagle on Saturday. He hit 18 greens on Sunday and he still didn’t win.
Over the course of four majors this year, a total of 14 players beat McIlroy (second at the Masters, eighth at the PGA, T5 at the U.S. Open, third at the Open).
“I can’t be too despondent because of how this year’s went and this year’s going. I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open,” said McIlroy, a four-time major champion who hasn’t won one of golf’s four biggest titles since 2014.
(Is Cameron Smith, above left, buying what Greg Norman is selling?)
Considering the fractured nature of the professional game at the moment, what happens now?
Expect the rupture to get more severe. Rumors about who may take the LIV money ran hot around St. Andrews last week and Smith, whose name keeps popping up in the gossip, fanned the flames with his non-answer Sunday evening about his LIV intentions.
Given the chance to shoot down the speculation, Smith awkwardly deflected the question twice. Behind the mullet and mustache, Smith looked like a man listening to what Greg Norman is selling.
It could be Smith is waiting until after the FedEx Cup playoffs to make the jump and he may not be the only one. The playoffs begin in three weeks and someone is going to win enough to impress the Saudis.
Hideki Matsuyama’s name keeps coming up as does that of European Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson, whose defection would cost him his captaincy as it should.
No doubt the game’s leaders gathered last week to talk about next steps, and it seems the hard lines have been reinforced.
The Open Championship at the Old Course did many things, but it didn’t change the reality of where the game found itself on the morning after.
Top: Cameron Smith plays his shot from the 18th tee with the wall of the Road Hole visible in the foreground during the final round of the 150th Open Championship. Photo: Keyur Khamar, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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