Tour Confidential: Cam Smith’s rise, Rory’s fall and St. Andrews
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Cam Smith’s win at the Open Championship, Rory McIlroy’s majors drought, St. Andrews and more.
1. The Open Championship is complete, and Cam Smith is your latest major championship winner. Starting the day four shots back of Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, Smith shot a stunning eight-under 64, aided in great part by one of the best clutch putting performances you’ll see. We’ll begin our round table with him. What will be your biggest takeaway from Smith going forward?
Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): He does a lot of things right, but he does two things really well: make birdies and putt. Some people just have that second gear to put up low scores when the conditions allow, and he did. It was an impressive bounce back after he shot 73 on Saturday. His up-and-down on 17 deserves a ton of credit. He needed to save par on the hardest hole in golf and went up and around a bunker with his putter and pulled it off.
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): How he blacked out and made every putt on Friday and every putt on Sunday and somehow shot 73 in between those rounds. It’s wild. His putting stroke is so, so, so, so good.
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Smith’s putting is unbelievable. Every putt he strikes looks like it has a chance to go in — and in Rounds 2 and 4, they did! That ability to go unconscious on the greens is super impressive and keeps him in tournaments even when he falters in other areas.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): At any course that doesn’t demand greatness with driver — and especially those that DO demand greatness around the greens — Smith is That Guy. He proves that unsustainable stretches of red-hot putting actually are sustainable, as long as you have his putting stroke.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): Man, I think my biggest takeaway is that I’m a little tired of the motion sickness. Smith oscillates between oh my god good and good lord bad with a speed that makes my stomach churn. When it’s good, though, the number of players who can beat him wouldn’t fill the B-side of a vinyl.
2. One could make the argument, of course, that McIlroy didn’t do enough in his round of 70, which included 18 two-putts. The betting favorite coming into the week, McIlroy now stretches his number of years without a major to eight. In your opinion, what held McIlroy back on Sunday? And what does he need to do to break the drought?
Berhow: His putter held him back. The game is there, the drive is there, the mindset is there, the preparation is there. He just didn’t make the putts today he made much of the week. He finished top 10 in all four majors this year, so he’s doing everything he needs to. His time will come to win that fifth major, but what a heartbreaking ending when it seemed like that day was today.
Zak: Bad luck? He hit every green in regulation. He two-putted every green. If you eliminate Viktor Hovland, which Hovland did to himself, Rory started the day with a four-shot lead and got beat by a 64. There’s some bad luck to that.
Melton: As many have noted, Rory’s putter didn’t cooperate on Sunday. Beyond that, though, he looked a little bit surprised when Smith rattled off four straight circles to pass him in the final round. Once that happened, Rory wasn’t able to kick it into high gear to catch back up. He just couldn’t push the right buttons on Sunday.
Dethier: I don’t think he needs to do anything differently to break the drought except play more major championships in his current form. Unfortunately he does have to wait eight and a half months before he gets to his next one — hopefully he’s in the same form when he does.
Colgan: First, I think he needs a hug. Otherwise, though, I agree with Dylan. This week’s performance would have won him three majors this year. It just so happened to come on the one week it didn’t.
3. The biggest story ahead of Sunday came from a player who didn’t make the weekend. Tiger Woods shot rounds of 78 and 75 and missed the cut, though he was clear that he would play again — and no, he did not wave goodbye atop the Swilcan Bridge. Lots to consider here. Woods struggled, but his surgically repaired right leg looked better. He also wouldn’t commit to any event after this week, so when we see him next is unclear. Our question is this, and it’s direct: After what you saw this week, and this year, does he contend ever again?
Berhow: I think he’ll make more cuts but don’t see him contending much. It’s always going to be a double-edged sword for him. He’ll play less to keep his body healthy, but less reps will mean more rust when it comes to tournament golf. He could have a chance to be competitive at the Masters for a handful of more years because his course knowledge is so superior there. As for Friday, that send-off was pretty surreal. Probably the most memorable moment I’ve seen in person on a golf course in my life.
Zak: It would be foolish to say he’ll never contend again, so I won’t. He swears he’s getting stronger and things are getting better, but he also swears that we’ve got no idea what he’s putting his body through. He definitely cares a lot and way too much to struggle this much. So I think he’ll contend in a major next year. Maybe two!
Melton: I’m not very bullish on Tiger’s chances to contend again. His health just won’t allow it. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.
Dethier: The most encouraging thing I saw this week was how much better Woods seemed to be walking early in his rounds on Thursday and Friday. The most discouraging was hearing Woods describe just how brutal it is to prep for a tournament round. That’s clearly not a mountain he wants to climb more than a handful of times per year. He looked rusty more than he looked injured. I don’t know where that nets out.
Colgan: I can’t sit here and tell you that Tiger Woods won’t ever contend at the Masters again. But I think we’ve reached the point in his career when that development will be a surprise, and not the expectation.
4. Outside of the players, the star, of course, was the course, and St. Andrews was much discussed. Going into the week, the conversation revolved around whether the Home of Golf would hold up to the modern game, and during the week, the talk centered on the defense: quick fairways and tough pins, along with all of the other traps of a links course. Was St. Andrews a worthy host?
Berhow: Yes! I don’t care if Cameron Smith won at 20 under. It’s a historic links and location, and everyone’s playing the same course anyway. It’s unique in a way only it can be. The wind is the main defense, and you can’t always account for that beforehand. I can’t wait for the next one here.
Zak: It was! Without much for Scottish weather, the R&A was forced into making the firm conditions become the story and tucking pins away from players. That’s fine! Xander Schauffele and Matthew Fitzpatrick called that tricked up, but major championship golf hovers so closely to the tricked-up line that it’s surprising it doesn’t cross the line more often. The 2030 Open (potentially) at St. Andrews will look different. Different weather, maybe a rolled-back golf ball and driver. We’re all good.
Melton: Absolutely. It produced an elite leaderboard and a compelling tournament, and identified a worthy champion. Tough to beat that trio.
Dethier: You an Old Course critic? I hear you! I will say that a course with four or five drivable par-4s is a bit strange. The scene on Thursday afternoon — when conditions led to 6+ hour rounds — was less than ideal. But this was my first trip to St. Andrews, and I am a full-on convert. To quote Tony Finau: This is the only course that could get away with it. This town, this course, this setting? It’s all perfect. Add some wind to the mix and the scores would have been a whole lot different.
Colgan: The winning score could have been 100-under and I wouldn’t have cared. That was the most fun I’ve had watching golf since the ’19 Masters. Clearly, the golf course played a role in the fun. The critics can kick rocks.
5. The story that has dominated golf didn’t disappear at the Open. From players to R&A boss Martin Slumbers, LIV Golf was talked about from Monday to Sunday. We’ll keep it Open focused and ask: In what capacity will we see LIVers next year?
Berhow: I don’t see much changing. More guys will leave, some of them bigger names than others, but the major championships will continue on with a mix of PGA Tour and LIV players. That said, the next thing to watch for is if LIV Golf is granted world ranking points. Because if not, many of those players won’t be appearing in majors down the road.
Zak: The ones who qualify via major exemptions will be back. The others might all have to qualify in different ways. They may have to pile into Open Qualifying if they don’t have enough OWGR points. It could get weird.
Melton: I’m sure they’ll be back, but the reception will likely be equally frosty.
Dethier: We’re bound to see more scenes like we had with Dustin Johnson this weekend, pitting LIV against non-LIV players. That’s an inevitability as long as LIV keeps collecting top-ranked players. But Sunday felt like the last day of school. Some aging LIV stars seemed prepared to be saying goodbye. There’s plenty of uncertainty ahead.
Colgan: My prediction is that we’ll seeing them … in qualifiers to earn their way into the Open! Which is maybe not the worst thing in the world?
6. The major championship season is over. What’s the story/topic/winner/loser you’ll remember most?
Berhow: I know it’s fresh so it’s an obvious answer, but it’s McIlroy at the Open. We’ve waited eight years for his next major title. This one is going to hurt for a long time.
Zak: I watched Cam Smith hit his tee shot on 12 at Augusta National into Rae’s Creek while sitting across from his agent. It changed everything for their next 24 hours. Solidified their already-booked flights. It felt like a huge lost opportunity. And then I saw Cam Smith pull this off today to sum up major season. What a fun season it was.
Melton: I’ll give some love to Mito Pereira. His meltdown at the PGA provided some terrific theater, even if it was tough to watch. Here’s to hoping he gets a few more chances to break through.
Dethier: Since you’re all focused on the heartbreaking losers, I’ll take us back to Justin Thomas’ ridiculous back-nine charge at Southern Hills to come from absolutely nowhere to win the PGA Championship.
Colgan: It really felt like the Masters was Scottie Scheffler’s pronouncement. It’s been a while since we’ve had a player come of age like that. His subsequent ascension to World No. 1 — and constantly nagging threat at majors — has only confirmed as much.