Smith spoiled McIlroy's party at the 150th edition of The Open at St. Andrews on Sunday. After starting the final round 4 shots behind McIlroy and Norway's Viktor Hovland, Smith had a sizzling back nine, making five consecutive birdies to card an 8-under 64 and win the Claret Jug.
Smith is only the third winner to shoot 64 or better in the final round of The Open, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henrik Stenson (63 at Royal Troon in 2016) and Greg Norman (64 at Royal St. George's in 1993) were the others. Smith's 20-under score also matches Stenson's 72-hole total in 2016 for the lowest score to par in Open history.
PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young eagled the 18th hole to finish solo second, 1 shot behind Smith. McIlroy, who was trying to win his fifth major, finished a disappointing third at 18-under. He has now gone eight full seasons since winning his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.
McIlroy can at least take solace that he didn't lose this major; Smith won it with one of the best final rounds in major championship history. McIlroy clearly had the crowd behind him.
McIlroy didn't play poorly and still had a nice cushion going into the back nine. He just didn't give himself enough birdie chances and could only match Smith with pars.
Here are five observations from the final round at St. Andrews:
Cameron Smith has arrived
Along with Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Hovland, Smith was arguably among the best players in the world without a major championship victory before Sunday. He is ranked sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking. He has now won six times on the PGA Tour and four other times around the world.
Smith had a chance to grab the 54-hole lead Saturday, but his usually reliable putter let him down. Afterward, he told reporters this: "The golfing gods weren't with me today."
That certainly wasn't the case for Smith on Sunday. He had cut McIlroy's lead to 3 shots when he made the turn. Remarkably, by the 14th hole, Smith was 1 shot ahead. He had five straight birdies starting at the 10th.
One of the best putters in the world, Smith drained putts of 5 feet on No. 10, 16 feet on No. 11, 11 feet on No. 12 and 18 feet on No. 13. Then on the par-5 14th, Smith nearly made an 87-foot eagle putt and tapped in for birdie and a 1-shot lead.
Smith is the only player over the past 20 years to birdie the first five holes of the back nine in the final round of a major, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Smith put the field away when he nearly drove the green on the 18th hole. From 75 feet away, he putted to 2 feet and made his eighth birdie of the round.
He became the first player to win his first major at St. Andrews by overcoming a deficit entering the final round since Dick Burton in 1939.
Smith seemed to arrive at the Players in March, when he won $3.6 million, the richest purse for a winner in PGA Tour history. He becomes only the fifth player to win both the Players and a major in the same season, joining Jack Nicklaus (1978), Hal Sutton (1983), Tiger Woods (2001) and Martin Kaymer (2014).
McIlroy has suffered plenty of heartache since he won his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. He had close calls at the Masters and The Open in 2018 and the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last year. It was the ninth time he has finished in the top five at a major since last winning one.
The loss on Sunday, in which McIlroy had a 4-shot lead at the start and a 3-shot cushion at the turn, might end up stinging the most.
"[I'm] disappointed, obviously," McIlroy said. "Yeah, I felt like I didn't do much wrong today, but I didn't do much right, either. It's just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I felt like I needed to just apart from capitalizing on the easier holes -- around the turn ... 9, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story.
"But look, I got beaten by a better player this week. Twenty-under par for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive playing, especially to go out and shoot 64 today to get it done."
Again, most of the galleries were behind McIlroy. Smith and everyone else probably felt like underdogs compared to him. But the Rory roars never came Sunday.
Playing one group behind Smith, McIlroy made a birdie on the par-4 10th to move to 18-under. He didn't make another birdie the rest of the way.
McIlroy narrowly missed a birdie putt of 14 feet on the 12th before almost sinking a 61-footer on the 13th. McIlroy didn't take advantage of the par-5 14th. His second shot from 248 yards was short of the green, so he putted from the fairway to 18 feet. Another near-miss left him with a disappointing par. McIlroy also had close misses from 28 feet on No. 16 and 22 feet on No. 17.
"Yeah, I'll rue a few missed sort of putts that slid by," McIlroy said. "But it's been a good week overall. 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."
McIlroy finished in the top 10 in each of the four majors this season. He finished second at the Masters, eighth at the PGA Championship and tied for fifth at the U.S. Open.
"Yeah, obviously, with not just his results this year, but he's come awfully close and played really well this year," said Hovland, who finished in a tie for fourth at 14 under. "But at the end of the day, he keeps playing the way he's doing, he's going to get one pretty soon, I think at least. Still, yeah, it's tough. You've got to finish it off."
Golf's next generation is good
Smith, 28, is the sixth straight winner of a major by a player who is in his 20s. Matt Fitzpatrick (27) won the U.S. Open, Justin Thomas (29) won the PGA Championship and Scottie Scheffler (26) took the Masters. Last year, Collin Morikawa (25) won The Open and Jon Rahm (27) took the U.S. Open.
If you take out Phil Mickelson's unexpected victory at the 2021 PGA Championship, in which he became the oldest major champion at 50, it would be seven in a row. Hideki Matsuyama won the 2021 Masters at 29.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, players in their 20s haven't won six consecutive majors since 1921 to 1923, when Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Arthur Havers and Bobby Jones combined to do it.
Cameron Young is for real
For much of the week, with so much attention on McIlroy and Woods, you might have barely noticed that PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young was in contention. But the golfer from New York shot under par in each round, including a 7-under 65 on Sunday. He had an eagle on the par-14 18th to grab solo second at 19 under.
After finishing in a tie for third at the PGA Championship, Young is only the second player since Morikawa to finish in the top three in his debut in those events. Morikawa won the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park and the 2021 Open at Royal St. George's.
"It probably hurts a little worse to come up 1 shot short," Young said. "If you lose by 8 you don't really care. But yeah, I played well [on Sunday]. I would have signed up for 65 this morning. And to watch Cameron shoot what he did, it was pretty amazing.
Is St. Andrews too easy?
The R&A knew that St. Andrews, the "home of golf," would be vulnerable to advanced equipment and the best players in the world, especially if the wind wasn't blowing hard off the North Sea.
The wind didn't blow much during the final two rounds, so the scores were very, very low. Smith's 20-under total is the lowest for an Open at St. Andrews. The average score was 71.619. There were 929 birdies and 29 eagles.
"I think we definitely are hitting it too far for the course, probably, if I had to guess," Schauffele said. "Maybe it's just too firm. I'm not too sure, to be completely honest.
The R&A tucked the pins as well as it could, but it didn't seem to make too much of a difference.
"The way they made it difficult was a little tricky in my mind," Schauffele said. "Some of those pins they tucked -- I mean, if you're on the correct side, you're going to have 30 feet, 40 feet. But if you try to hit it close and you get a little greedy like I did [Saturday], there's no grass on top of some of those slopes.
"[Sunday] it was a lot softer. The ball was kind of staying on the ground. [Saturday] there was no friction. Almost felt like a USGA event back in '15 or '16."