How it felt at St. Andrews as the Open flipped from Rory McIlroy to Cam Smith

Rory McIlroy walks off 18th hole St. Andrews

Rory McIlroy walks off the 18th hole at St. Andrews after finishing third at the Open Championship.

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Late Sunday at the Old Course, Gerry McIlroy had pressed up against the metal wire lining the 16th hole, mixed in among the hordes chanting his son’s name. There was an uneasy look in his eye that wasn’t there four hours prior, when he smiled his way down the 1st hole, getting in position to watch his favorite golfer. But now he wore a look of disquiet.

If anyone deserved an unobstructed view, it was Gerry. Rory McIlroy had played bogey-free golf for 16 holes, though that didn’t mean mistake-free golf. Up ahead of him, a mulleted man had played immaculate golf. In the previous 60 minutes or so, the mood on this 92-acre property had shifted. Thanks to five straight birdies from Cameron Smith and missed opportunities from McIlroy, Team Rory was suddenly trailing for the first time all day.

Fans speak with their feet and they speak with their chants. Most of St. Andrews wanted McIlroy to win. Most of Scotland and the rest of the golf world wanted him to win. It would be ignorant to suggest otherwise. Scottie Scheffler admitted it Saturday: “They’re chanting his name out there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite. How can you not root for Rory?”

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They shouted his name across town Friday night. They chanted his name when he tapped in for 66 Thursday afternoon. They crowded onto balconies along the course simply to watch him walk by. This tournament was considered a McIlroy victory right up until the moment it wasn’t, which was about the same time I saw Gerry McIlroy along 16. Slowly but surely the unease that was on his face had washed over the rest of the Old Course, too. When Smith made a preposterous up-and-down from below the Road Hole bunker on 17, there was no roar echoing out over the property like you’d see at Augusta National. Spectators came here to see great golf; now they were coming to grips with the fact that it was coming from a different player. 

Low-amateur Filippo Celli and his father had stormed right past Smith, the actual leader of the tournament, en route to watch McIlroy, Celli’s favorite player. Celli had spent his afternoon shooting 71 and telling the press how excited he was to share the closing ceremony with McIlroy. He had tried watching McIlroy at the 2016 Open at Royal Troon, but could only get close enough to see one tee shot. Now, he was out there inside the ropes, trying his best to will McIlroy’s putts into the hole. The fans embedded in the grounds of the Old Course Hotel were doing the same, properly lubricated with local beers and standing on the thin, weathered, centuries-old rock wall that serves as a course boundary. 

A restless mob waited at the 17th green. The same spectators who had barely peeped when Smith saved par went bonkers when McIlroy’s approach settled to 15 feet. And they were properly dismayed when the putt rolled next to the cup but not in. 

“[Fans] were a lot louder in the beginning compared to the end, that’s for sure,” said Viktor Hovland when it was all said and done. 

Smith’s unwavering play crashed like a wave of reality ahead of McIlroy. Spectators who had lined the 18th hole for hours had pushed a temporary iron fence up against the aging wooden fence, hoping they’d see some magic, but after Smith two-putted for birdie from the Valley of Sin, plenty decided enough was enough. It was time to leave. Among the crestfallen was one fan on 18 who said, “This is what it feels like when the home team loses a football game.” 

“He is the spoiler,” Paul Azinger said of Smith on the NBC Broadcast. It was up to McIlroy to re-spoil it, somehow. The international flags above the 18th that had whipped all week were now lifeless, as if they had given up.

If the marketing promotion of this 150th Open Championship was “Everything Has Led to This,” then everything this weekend had led to the moment of McIlroy crossing the Swilcan Bridge Sunday with a hope of winning the Claret Jug. His hotel suite looked out over the finishing hole all week. He thought about what it would look like. He’s watched highlights of Tiger Woods’ victory in 2000, when frenzied fans bounded into the burn, leapt over it, and were even pushed back into the waterway by marshals hoping for decorum. The fans always win that battle. And what was most bizarre, as this scene plays out in McIlroy’s head for any sleepless nights ahead, is that the exact same thing happened Sunday.

Frenzied fans leapt over the burn chasing after McIlroy in the fairway. Members of the Royal British Army, decked out in red marshal gear, beckoned for them to stop. The grandstands chanted his name with every step he took up to his ball. Spectators on 18 climbed fences and hung onto the side of houses to see if he could do it. A square of open area sat in front of him, each side of it a wall of cell phones. Only the lucky ones had a glimmer of cell service.

The chip itself was impossible. McIlroy could spend all day and all night trying to hole it and never once pull it off. When he tapped in for par and third place, the tournament was over, but they chanted his name one final time. The best fans in golf hung around as the reality settled in a final time. Plenty of them sprinkled out over the Old Course’s 1st fairway, posing for photos, or turned their attention to Peyton Manning, now the most famous man in that square of cell phones.

The new Champion Golfer of the Year took the mic and was rendered speechless. He stammered his way through an emotional thank you — the type of moment fans adore — then posed for some photos and conducted a few more interviews. After a few minutes, he delivered the line of the night: “I’m definitely going to find out how many beers fit in this thing.” It earned the requisite amount of applause. But you couldn’t help but think what it would have sounded like if another man got to say it.

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.