By Dan Rapaport
Noted fisherman Cameron Smith reeled in Rory McIlroy for the biggest catch of his life, delivering a final round for the ages with a 64 at the Old Course. There is so, so much to discuss. Here are our parting thoughts from the 150th Open Championship.
1. We start, as always, with the winner. Cameron Smith was not the fan favourite on Sunday, but he has the ideal temperament to win a major championship as the non-fan favourite. The entire British island, and the Irish one west of it, did everything in its power to will Rory McIlroy to victory. Smith hardly seemed to notice. He is as easygoing as they come, seemingly impervious to noise or narrative. As he strutted through the back-nine in just 30 shots late on Sunday afternoon, he carried himself like a chill-as-hell Queenslander out for a twilight round on the links. As the Aussies say: “No dramas, mate.”
2. On Saturday evening, with the Claret Jug firmly in sight, Rory McIlroy spoke of wanting to stay in his own bubble during what he knew would be a mentally taxing final round. His reasoning: If I interact with the crowd too much, I’ll allow myself to think about what a victory would look and feel like, and that’s an express route to failure. I certainly understand the sentiment — wanting to keep a layer of emotional insulation between your golf game and everything else — but I found it a particularly interesting comment given an interaction I had with him early in the week.
It was Thursday morning, and McIlroy had just finished the par-4 fourth when his group discovered the threesome ahead still on the tee of the par-5 fifth. He, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele stopped between the two holes to watch the group behind them finish out. (It was a theme for the first two days, particularly so on Thursday, when afternoon rounds dragged longer than six hours.) Once the group ahead had hit, Rory and Co moseyed on over to the tee, where I happened to be sitting. McIlroy, needing to kill some time, came over for a chat. He wanted to know what the ‘D’ logo on my hat was. A personal brand? No, of course not. It’s an alternate logo for Deepdale Golf Club. He’d played there. He remembered the head pro. We discussed the course and its elite membership. Then we talked about hoodies. He liked mine, and I asked if he’d ever played in one. He’d considered it, but ultimately decided the hood itself was a bit too large and might interfere with his swing. Then he turned around to hit.
McIlroy shot 66 that day, and he clearly wasn’t in his own bubble. At least not in that moment. I don’t pretend to know what kind of attitude he should have down the stretch — he’s won four majors, I’ve won zero — and Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon are not the same proposition. But maybe that’s part of the problem? That he seems to play his best golf when he’s loose, and it’s virtually impossible to be loose with three holes left at the Old Course? Or maybe it was just an ice-cold putter. (Yeah, probably that.) By the way, per the oracle Justin Ray: McIlroy is the first player on record to start Sunday with at least a share of the lead, hit every green in regulation and lose. He also hit it in just one bunker all week and holed out from it for eagle. He simply could not hole a putt when he needed to all weekend.
3. Cameron Young now has five runner-up finishes in a highly impressive rookie season. He’s not satisfied. At all. Just days before heading overseas for the Scottish double, Young called his caddie Scott McKean to have the conversation every caddie fears. Making that call even tougher: McKean and Young are best friends. Like, best-man-in-wedding level boys. They became tight at Wake Forest, and McKean was on the bag for Young’s year on the Korn Ferry Tour, as well as the other four runners-up. Young felt it was in his best interest to have a veteran caddie on the bag; he didn’t love that each event was both his and his looper’s first time seeing a golf course. And so he pulled off the band-aid.
“I kind of, as much as I’ve had a solid year, there’s been a couple things missing, I think,” Young said Thursday. “I haven’t won anything, and that was just something that could change to kind of exhaust all my options to see what I could do better. That was just something that we as a team decided was probably best for my golf.”
Business comes first, and elite athletes have to make some brutal choices.
4: On the Tiger front … so, now what? Woods actually looked better physically at the Open than he did at either Augusta National or Southern Hills. The limp was less pronounced, and he was not at all far behind Matt Fitzpatrick or Max Homa off the tee. Which, of course, makes sense — the Old Course is dead flat, and he had another two months to strengthen his leg. But his game was powerfully rusty. He looked great in practice, striped it on the range, then couldn’t seem to get the ball into the hole once the scorecard was in his back pocket. The issue is that he simply cannot play enough events to develop competitive sharpness. When he came back from his back fusion, he spoke of being pain-free. He is never, ever pain-free anymore. He played 19 events in 2018 and five more in 2019 before his Masters victory. He’d proven himself a winner on the PGA Tour and a consistent contender in majors before finally cross the line. Even Woods cannot expect to turn up a few times a year, at the hardest courses, against the best fields, and snap back into championship-level form.
But he also doesn’t even seem to be considering playing more. After his 75 on Friday, he said he had zero events planned, that all he wanted to do this year was play in these three majors. He was then asked if he might try to play more events next year with an eye toward tightening his game before the majors.
“I understand all that. I understand being more battle hardened, but it’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,” Woods said. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of the work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day to do what I just did. That’s what people don’t understand. They don’t see. And then you think about playing more events on top of that, it’s hard enough just to do what I did.”
There is a distinct possibility, perhaps even probability, that this is the new normal for Woods — majors, and majors only. We simply don’t know if it’s even possible for his leg to get strong enough to sustain playing, say, 10 events a year, and we do know that he’d never in a million years ask for a cart. We know better than to count him out, but you do wonder how he would feel if he’s nowhere near contention in the majors next year. He’s said countless times that he does not have any interest in being a ceremonial golfer, but he’s also addicted to competition and seems his happiest inside the ropes, trading barbs with the boys. His future is a giant question mark.
5. This brought the close of an enchanting fortnight in Scotland, one in which we saw PGA Tour players, often (fairly) caricatured as golfing robots, morph into golf nerds like the rest of us. Max Homa couldn’t get enough, sneaking out for a twilight 18 at North Berwick after making the cut at the Scottish Open. On Wednesday evening of Open week, a few other media types came through with a last-minute invite to play Elie Golf House Club, an impossibly charming layout about 25 minutes due south of St Andrews. Andy Johnson, founder of The Fried Egg, described it as one of those rounds that fills up the tank. Spot-on. After watching the pros devise a plan of action for picking apart the Old Course, we were all itching for a crack at a links ourselves, and we got one. We teed off around 7pm and finished, just barely, in near-darkness. We shared a cab ride back and told jokes, debated our favourite holes and marvelled at the experience we’d just shared. In what other sport is there such a direct link between the best players in the world and the amateurs? This was like a bunch of American football journalists, adrenalin pumping after covering a Super Bowl practice, running Oklahoma drills. Or a couple basketball journalists, after watching a particularly fiery Final Four. Maybe that happens, but I don’t think so. Our connection to this game runs so deep because we play this game. Here’s to hoping that never changes.
6. Viktor Hovland just didn’t hit it well enough to win, so it’s sort of a moot point, but I can’t wrap my head around how conservatively he played on Sunday. The Norwegian’s driver is among his chief weapons, and even after falling behind early he opted to lay back with a driving iron a number of times. The most egregious example came on the par-4 ninth, one of the drivable holes at the Old Course that beg for a birdie. It’s not a particularly hard decision — virtually everyone in the field hit driver up by the green, and there were miles of turf right to welcome a block. It’s not a particularly tight tee shot, but Hovland pulled driving iron and did not give himself a good look at birdie. The only explanation: He just didn’t feel comfortable hitting one of the two most important clubs in the bag at St Andrews. (The other, of course, being the putter). It didn’t exactly scream confidence.
7. Guys spent more time at St Andrews in the lead-up to the event than you’ll ever see at any other major. Typically, by Wednesday afternoon, the golf course is empty and the range is populated only by those desperate strugglers searching for a last-minute miracle. This week, the links and practice facilities were buzzing until about 7pm. Part of that was an attempt to familiarise themselves with the humps and bumps, but it was also because they wanted to milk every last minute out of a week they’ll tell their grandchildren about. It carried over into the tournament itself as I can’t recall seeing so many fist-pumps before noon on Thursday. Of course, guys want to be in contention at any major, but this week, they seemed almost desperate to get into the mix and feel the rush of chasing a title at the Old Course.
8. The way the Old Course played this week, springy and bouncy and brown, brought an interesting word to mind: luck. What role does luck have in this game? In a tournament that, by its very nature, should identify the best golfer of the week?
Opinions varied. Widely. On the whole, old-timey writers (and players) believe luck has always been baked into the fabric of this sport. It’s not supposed to be fair. Take Tiger Woods’ first hole of the tournament, for example. He flushed a long iron exactly where he was looking, and it finished in a fresh and sandy divot. Is that … is that good? Should that happen? In this case, I lean on the side of yes: this is a sport that’s played outside. Luck of the draw with tee times and conditions have always factored into determining who wins. If it was all supposed to be perfectly fair, why don’t we just give each player a piece of AstroTurf to carry around and hit off of? Why not just have competitions inside a simulator?
But not all luck is the same — there is luck of the draw and rub of the green, and then there’s having to hit and simply hope for the best. According to US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, there was way too much of that going on this week.
“I’m not really a fan,” Fitzpatrick said of the course and the set-up this week after his Saturday round. “It’s difficult to … I just feel like sometimes … I’ve heard it on commentary all week. You can hit good shots and get bad bounces. And you can hit bad shots and get good bounces. Like I say, I felt, for the first seven holes, I didn’t really miss a shot. I’m walking off seventh green and I’m plus-1. It’s tough to take. It’s tough to stay patient. I hit the green on 12, and I just got no putt. It’s tucked on top of a hill, and I hit what I thought was a good putt and it comes to 12 feet. There’s a lot of stuff like that that’s been done, obviously, to protect it from going lower, I guess … 16, for me, is an example of a hole where I’ve just tried to make par all week, just bang it into the long rough, wedge it up on the green, and get out with a par.”
Anecdotally, it did seem like most birdies this week were made by guys hitting it up by the green in one less than regulation — so, on their drive on a par 4, or in two on a par 5 — hoping their ball ended up in a good spot and getting up and down. There were so many driver-putters this week, and wedge/short-iron play was borderline irrelevant. When asked the two most important parts of your game you need firing to have success out here, Kevin Kisner didn’t have to think twice: Driving and lag putting. That’s different from the other major championship tests we’ve seen in recent years, where iron play is critical. As far as identifying the best players, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the leaderboard, and the unpredictable nature of the Old Course produced some highly entertaining viewing, but Fitzpatrick has a point. Justin Thomas, however, saw things differently. Like, direct opposite:
“The good part about this week is with the little amount of wind is they’ve been able to set some challenging pins,” Thomas said. And when the greens are rolling a 9 or a 10, you can do that. It’s not unfair, it’s just difficult. I thought the R&A did an unbelievable job setting up the course this week. ”
The lesson here: in any context, you’re never going to please 156 golfers.
9. For such an iconic venue, the opening tee shot at St Andrews is among the more underwhelming ones — a long iron, or a hybrid, or a fairway wood into perhaps the widest fairway in championship golf. There’s a certain charm in the first-tee introductions — “On the tee, from the USA, Tiger Woods!” — and the fans welcome each player to the tee with warm applause. Then, the player hits his shot and no one really knows exactly what to do, because literally all of them find the fairway. Contrast that with the first tee shot at Augusta, with that cavernous bunker down the right begging for a ball, trees right of it and a forest down the left. That shot can set the tone for a round; the first tee shot at the Old Course is essentially just a formality.
10. On the flip side, the first tee gave players an opportunity to show off their stingers. Yes, it was a stinger parade, with guys wanting to flight a long iron below the wind and have it roll for days. The nastiest one I saw this week — and by that I just mean, the lowest — and thus the current King of the Stinger: Joaquin Niemann. Max Homa gets the silver, Tommy Fleetwood the bronze.
11. We want athletes to be real with us, to avoid press conference mad-libs and provide a window into their true feelings. Of course, doing so might not be in their best interest — verbalising insecurities only makes them more real, and it’s not a coincidence that so many guys answer questions the same exact way. In their minds, there is little upside in spilling the beans to the press. Some brave (naïve) souls, however, eschew the sports-psychologist recommendations and let us in. McIlroy is the most salient example of this, but he’s not the only one. Enter Robert MacIntyre.
MacIntyre is currently the best player from Scotland, where this game started, and he wears that label (burden?) proudly. He spoke glowingly of the Scottish Open all week, wanting desperately to put on a good show for the home crowd. He wanted it even more at St Andrews, which made his back nine on Friday a pressure cooker. After a bogey at 15, he needed to play the last three in even par to get to the weekend on the number. He did, and then he exhaled.
“I’ve never been that stressed on a golf course in my life,” he said on Saturday. “With seven holes to go, I don’t know what was going on. Had to turn away from the actual fairway on 16 because there was too much going on. Fan support is absolutely brilliant, but I was feeling it. Almost … you’re not letting people down, but you know how much it means. There’s so many people supporting me, and it means so much to me that I just didn’t … I wasn’t going to let them down because I was having a hard bit, but I was trying almost too hard. I mean, last night I was sitting at the dinner table just slouched, didn’t know what to do. I was trying to eat, but I was just, I was done. I could have curled up in a ball when I finished and cried.”
Now that … that’s real.
12. Talor Gooch was the butt of a few jokes last week, but we’re going to focus on something he said that won’t be widely lambasted. “It was spectacular out there,” Gooch said after an opening-round 78. “There’s no better clap, cheer, roar than one at the Open. There’s something different about it. It sounds better than any other place.”
I’ll tell you what sounds different: there are no screams of “GET IN THE HOLE!” or “MASHED POTATOES!” There is indeed something viscerally pleasing about the sound of hundreds or thousands of people clapping thunderously, but not screaming. That’s the sound of the Open.
13. If I’m a LIV golfer, I’d be phoning whoever I can as often as I can to get updates on the Official World Golf Ranking conundrum. As Woods alluded to in his media conference, there is a distinct possibility that, at least in the short term, non-major winners who play the LIV series will not be able to get into majors if the circuit doesn’t offer World Ranking points soon. Guys in that position include Talor Gooch, Abraham Ancer, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Kevin Na, to name a few. Those guys being warm-blooded human beings with a pulse, this had to have been one of, if not the, best week of their year, and the prospect of not participating in these seminal events would toss me into an existential crisis.
Casey, for one, said he made the decision knowing full well that he’d likely slide down the world rankings, and that would likely impact his major-playing future. He did it anyway, pointing to his 45 years, and the fact he’s now played 71 major championships.
“It’s an interesting question for the younger guys,” Casey said. “Myself, I mean, I’m hanging on in the World Rankings. I don’t know what guys are going to do. I think there’s the option of playing some Asian Tour events. We’re going to see what happens with the DP World Tour. But I was under no illusions that my ranking could slide and be out within however long, whatever the timeframe is. More incentive to play well this week as well to try and get points.”
With the major season now in the rearview mirror, the LIV golfers are going to have to get creative should they want World Ranking points. And they desperately want World Ranking points. So, per Casey, a number of them are kicking around the idea in WhatsApp groups of playing Asian Tour events during the extended off periods between some LIV events. The saga continues.
14. Speaking of the saga … the golf world came together for four days in Scotland, but we were reminded of the drama while fans were still trying to leave the property. That’s when Cameron Smith was asked about the speculation of him making the move and … didn’t deny it. Minutes later, Sky Sports’ Jamie Weir reported that Henrik Stenson would join LIV imminently and be stripped of his Ryder Cup captaincy. Even if major weeks may provide some respite, the saga is not going to stop any time soon.
15. There’s always a random storyline that develops during major weeks that’s only tangentially related to the competition. This week, that role was emphatically filled by airline baggage woes. It seemed half the press room was dealing with lost luggage — or, worse, lost golf clubs. The pros weren’t immune to these issues, either, as Mark Calcavecchia didn’t get his sticks until Wednesday evening. But the quirkiest baggage story of the week came courtesy of Trey Mullinax, who won last week’s opposite-field Barbasol Championship then had to scramble to get to Scotland. When he got to the Old Course, he noticed his irons had been bent out of shape, the product of TSA searching through his bag then not bothering to put the clubs back in the actual golf bag, meaning they were loose in the travel case. He did not, however, notice that his putter’s loft was two degrees off until he made the cut on the number on Friday.
“I knew it looked funny,” he said with a laugh. “I was having to tell my caddie, man, I’m having to forward press this a lot. I was like, man, I don’t know what’s going on. The ball wasn’t rolling like it was in Kentucky. Surely I didn’t lose it in two days.” Indeed, he didn’t — after getting it adjusted, he fired a six-under 66 on Saturday. He blamed his mistake on “pure laziness”.
16. While perusing the entry list this week, one name in particular caught my attention: Justin de los Santos. He played under the flag of the Philippines this week, the birthplace of both his parents, and Justin grew up in Southern California. We played a number of rounds in junior golf together. It’s my job to cover this game, so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know he’d turned professional. Justin went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, an excellent academic university but not exactly a PGA Tour player factory. While there, he took a class in Japanese with an eye toward plying his trade in Asia.
“Coming out of college, I tried to do Korn Ferry Tour school but didn’t get through. Then, to be honest, I needed the money. I figured the Asian and Japan Tour were better money than Canada and Latinamerica, and I didn’t quite have the funding to do Korn Ferry Mondays.”
Off to Asia he went. Justin has spent the better part of three years in Japan, grinding on that tour and working hard to improve his Japanese. He’s 30th on the money list this year and No. 497 in the World Ranking. How, then, did he get into such an iconic championship? He birdied his final two holes to finish solo fourth in the Gate Way to the Open Mizuno Open, snagging the last of four spots up for grabs. He made his way to Scotland but decided staying in the town of St Andrews wasn’t worth the money, so he found a place about 15 minutes away by car. He doesn’t have a full-time caddie, so he picked up a local looper who has been working at the Old Course for 37 years. His name is John, but Justin couldn’t remember his last name. “Starts with a P, I think.”
Justin made the cut on the number, which is huge for two reasons: the Open purse dwarfs those of normal Japan Tour events, but it counts toward the money list, so he’ll move up considerably. Secondly, making a cut in a major gets you into second stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school. Before this week, Justin didn’t know if he could afford to spend all that money to potentially not get out of first stage and figured he’d just continue focusing on keeping his card in Japan. Now, he’s thinking he’ll give KFT qualifying school a try once again. He desperately wants to get back to the States, and this week brought him much closer to that goal. With so much golf talk these days on nine-figure guaranteed contracts, stories like Justin’s resonate a bit deeper — particularly for me, given my memories of us playing together as kids. I absolutely loved seeing him this week.
17. I learned a new term this week: gravities. Apparently it’s a measure of green-speed firmness. The Stimpmeter is a staple of the golf course lexicon, but I genuinely had never heard of measuring the firmness of the greens. As in this bulletin from the R&A: “Greens single cut at 3.5 mm. Speed 10.6 — same as yesterday. Firmness is 161 gravities — 8 gravities firmer than yesterday.” This seems like valuable information to have, an added indicator of the conditions of the greens beyond just their speeds. Perhaps this will become more common.
Anyways, I was curious how they measure this, so I did some capital-J Journalism and found the answer! There’s a contraption called the clegg hammer, and it drops a steel ball onto the ground. It measures the firmness of the turf by how high the ball bounces off said turf. Next time you’re out with the squad for a weekend round, ask them how many gravities they think the greens are bouncing at.
18. Just like that, the men’s major season is over, and with another four big ones in the books, I’m feeling especially grateful. For this place, for this sport, and for all of you, who apparently enjoy my ramblings enough to read all the way to the bottom. I can’t thank all of you enough for following and allowing me to do what I love. There are 262 days until the first round of the Masters, but who’s counting. Until next time.
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