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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Five takeaways from the greatest Open Championship of my time

Cameron Smith with the Claret Jug after his thrilling Open win.
Cameron Smith with the Claret Jug after his thrilling Open win.

Various thoughts from, all told and things considered, the best Open Championship I’ve attended in the 34 years I’ve been covering them…

Carpe Diem

I don’t think Rory McIlroy actually played conservatively on Sunday. He was playing the course the same as he’d done in the three previous rounds. He just couldn’t get a putt to drop.

But Cam Smith, it seems, has very few tactics other than foot to the floor. It got him roundly castigated on Saturday night at the 13th, when he tried to baseball one off the edge of one of the Coffins instead of taking the medicine those penal bunkers prescribe.

A double-bogey six resulted, and some thought his Open had gone right there. But undeterred, Smith just came back again. Extra putting practice in the Saturday gloaming “just to see the ball go in the hole”.

Then the surge he needed coming out of The Loop on Sunday, probably because he’d seen McIlroy static on the leaderboards.

Rory’s errors were few. He was two rolls short with a 60 foot putt on 13, a couple of marginal misreads, and went short instead of long on the second shot at 14.

It’s tiny margins when someone’s playing the backward half of a lifetime. I don’t think McIlroy has anything to reproach himself for this time.

Putting matters…at least here

‘Drive for show, putt for dough’ has been retired from the pantheon of golf’s great cliches in the age of strokes gained. But in some famous places, it still matters a lot.

Your correspondent’s selection of the winner as one of his five contenders was based upon this. The Old Course’s massive double greens put an extra importance on the flat-stick – both the long lag putts, and all the four to five foot knee-knockers that often result from a slight misjudgement.

Smith’s putting is his major strength, and he leaned heavily on it during his journey home in 30 strokes on Sunday.

Special respect to these Smith specials: the one on 11 to that tricky pin position on the back ledge, at 13 (hardest hole outside 17 all week) the super long lag stone dead from the dip at the back of 14, and, of course, the par saver at the Road Hole. When that went in, it was essentially game over.

No matter what they do, it’s still the Old Course

Given what they had to deal with – advanced equipment, a ball that flies too far, muscled players, just mildish winds, a poor growing season in May and much of June – I thought the R&A and the incredible St Andrews Links greens staff played a blinder.

The state of technology in the game is what it is. Yes, the R&A and USGA should have done something about it by now. But we are where we are, and in that vacuum, the Old Course played as brilliantly as it has ever done.

Three times now in ten years – Muirfield 2013, at Carnoustie in 2018 and this year – we’ve had the properly burned summer links for the Open. And, it’s no coincidence, the three best Opens of the century (although Stenson and Mickelson at Troon gets a nod of respect).

The R&A appear sanguine about the scoring, and indeed, you can’t say par doesn’t matter then in the same breath complain about 20-under.

Some distance control is coming. Perhaps next time (likely to be 2030, but maybe earlier) we’ll see those Old Course tees brought back into traditional ground again.

In the meantime, it’s still unique – a precious and antique artefact that is simultaneously relevant for almost constant use in the modern world.

Some brief words in praise of schmaltz

The 150th celebrations were perfect. Jack was back, tearful. Tiger took his (probable) leave, tearful. History was invoked, effortlessly. It was enough to make this arch-cynic well up. Nearly.

As a friend texted on Sunday night, ‘D’you think there’s any chance LIV Golf’s 150th anniversary will be anywhere near this good?”

The stand against LIV Golf

More players will ‘defect’ to the rebel tour now. Expect another few players in their mid-40s, some major champions, to jump. Henrik Stenson is expected, although his Ryder Cup captaincy is confusing matters, Adam Scott has been rumoured.

(As an aside, the four major winners this year are all under 30, the first time that’s happened since Young Tom Morris was the ONLY major winner. If you’re nearing your sell-by date, LIV makes a lot more sense.)

The new champion declined to deny he could jump. It may happen, but I suspect he’s just one of those younger players not committing either way as they wait to see how it all shakes down.

And in that respect the stance taken by Tiger Woods and the R&A’s Martin Slumbers may have stiffened some resolve.

For Woods, at 46 (and a old 46 in terms of his body) even a rumoured $300m or more and the kind of reduced schedule which you’d think might appeal in his current state didn’t deflect from his opposition. He’s no long a PGA Tour player, really, so he had no vested interest. But he was coruscating against the new tour, and his words will carry weight.

The R&A’s stance is highly significant too. Surely Slumbers will not have spoken without the broad approval of Augusta National, the USGA and the PGA of America. When one member of golf’s majors speaks, they are invariably speaking for all four.

Golf’s establishment seems pretty much foursquare against LIV. Even if it trawls through the courts, they’re on the outside in the short-to-medium term.