Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2022

Smith’s Hot Putter Dashes Fairy Tales And Dreams

There are places, surely, where fairy tales come true.  An alternate universe perhaps, or a different timeline, or maybe just long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  For why else would the golfing gods deign to create an environment such as existed in the ancient town of St. Andrews this past week?  The area along Scotland’s eastern edge, fronting the North Sea just south of the River Eden and a bit north of the Firth of Forth, has been populated for more than 6,500 years, the town as we now know it for nearly nine centuries.  The University of St. Andrews, third-oldest behind only Oxford and Cambridge in English-speaking lands, remains a distinguished center of learning more than 600 years after its founding.  But it is a relatively new attraction by local standards, the complex of six golf courses just a few blocks up North Street from the University’s traditional campus, that today draws visitors from around the globe.

Local history says that townsfolk have played the ancient game on the grounds of what is now St. Andrews Links since the 1400’s.  What is certain is that in 1552 the resident archbishop signed a charter ensuring public access to the grounds, and two centuries later the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, predecessor to the R&A, was formed.  Around that time – the mid 1700’s – the layout had 22 holes, though only about half that many fairways since most were played twice, once going out from town to the end of the public property, and then again coming back in.  Because some holes were considered too short, the 22 was reduced to 18 in 1764, the new number creating a lasting standard for a golf course.  A hundred years later, further modifications by Old Tom Morris, newly appointed as Keeper of the Green, made the links recognizable to a modern golfer, with fourteen double greens and the 1st tee and 18th green right next to the R&A’s clubhouse. 

Through all that time, the routing was simply known as the Links.  Then, in 1895, a second layout, designed by Morris, opened for play.  Long before the days when a marketing department would have spent time and money testing the commercial appeal of various names, the two neighboring courses were simply distinguished as Old and New.  Today, those two, plus three more 18’s and a 9-holer that sit adjacent, along with a seventh layout on the seaside cliffs just south of town, comprise the Home of Golf.

An estimated 300,000 fans swarmed into the old town for the 150th Open Championship, more than fifteen times the permanent population.  They came to the Home of Golf hoping to see a story unfold that would forever be deemed worthy of this symbolically numbered tournament.  Perhaps in time, as Cameron Smith’s career unfolds, those fans will look back and tell themselves that is exactly what they witnessed.  But it takes nothing away from Smith’s remarkable performance, which featured a pair of 8-under par rounds over the Open’s four days, the second of which included a string of five straight birdies that thrust him into the lead Sunday afternoon, that in the moment, most of those fans were left thinking of what might have been, longing for a golden moment that was ultimately not to be.

Their first dose of reality blew in, like a hard wind off the North Sea, during the Open’s first two rounds.  Once it became clear, as he recovered from the February 2021 car crash that nearly cost him his right leg, that Tiger Woods intended to return to competitive golf, many observers (including On Sports and Life) declared this year’s Open Championship as the most likely event for him to do so.  As the final major on this season’s calendar, its July date gave him the longest time to rehabilitate his body and sharpen his game.  More important, the largely flat Old Course, with its closely bunched holes and short walks from one green to the next tee, was by far the least physically taxing of this year’s major venues.

Woods of course was having none of such a cautionary approach, instead joining the field at the Masters in April and then traveling to Southern Hills for the PGA Championship in May.  But after appearing in obvious physical distress at both events, while fading steadily after an opening 71 at Augusta National and withdrawing after a 9-over par 79 in the PGA’s third round, Woods opted not to play in the U.S. Open.  Despite all that evidence to the contrary, there were countless fans dreaming of what would fairly be described as a miracle at St. Andrews, hopes that were fueled by breathless reports from both the media and other golfers of Tiger’s solid play and good mobility during the Open’s practice rounds.  Those dreams died a quick and ugly death once play began.  When Woods started with a double-bogey 6 on the Old Course’s benign opening par-4, it was ascribed to the bad luck of his tee shot landing in a divot.  But by the time he made the turn in 41, it was apparent St. Andrews would not be the scene of a dramatic Woods comeback.  He signed for a 78 Thursday and a 75 Friday, his 9-over total missing the cut by a wide margin and besting just seven other competitors.

Woods was overcome with emotion during his final walk up 18, as the full stands resounded with cheers for the greatest golfer of his generation.  Later, he said the tears flowed as he realized that by the time this championship returns to the Old Course, most likely in five years, he will no longer be a threat to win.  But one couldn’t help but think that for player and fans alike, there was a more immediate reason for sorrow.  Rather than being a timely opportunity, the Open confirmed what was apparent at the Masters and PGA.  The limits on Woods’s ability to adequately prepare, a product of not just the automobile accident but also multiple back surgeries over the years, combined with time’s inevitable impact on his once unmatched skills, have brought the curtain down on an era.  As with any great champion, Woods will be cheered for as long as he chooses to tee it up.  But those cheers will no longer be echoing late on a Sunday afternoon.

One other sure sign that the Age of Tiger is over is that Smith’s victory makes six consecutive men’s majors, and nine of the last ten, won by a golfer in his twenties, with only Phil Mickelson’s improbable win at last year’s PGA Championship interrupting the string.  To claim the Claret Jug, Smith had to overtake Rory McIlroy, who was himself a 25-year-old phenom when he last captured a major – his fourth – at the 2014 PGA Championship.  With sterling play and flawless putting, Smith’s win was well earned, but it came at the expense of the golfer most of those on the grounds were rooting for. 

When McIlroy holed out from a bunker for an eagle-2 at the par-4 10th hole on Saturday, the roars may well have echoed across the breadth of Scotland and the Irish Sea, all the way to his boyhood home in Holywood, Northern Ireland.  The shot propelled him to the top of the leader board, and he stayed there until almost the same point Sunday, when Smith started tearing up the Old Course’s inward nine.  McIlroy ending his long major drought with a win at the 150th Open was the ending fans wanted, but while considerably more likely than some magic from Woods, it too proved ephemeral.

Smith won the Open, which is to say McIlroy did not lose it by playing poorly, but he may well have played too conservatively Sunday on a course that had already yielded a number of low scores.  Then again, perhaps no effort would have bested Smith’s run, with consecutive birdie putts of 5, 16, 11, 18 and 5 feet, starting on the 10th green.  While not a fairy tale come true, it was enough to make Smith the champion golfer of the year.      

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: