Cameron Smith may have put himself in front at The Open with a scorching five consecutive birdies between the 10th and 14th holes but he won it with a par at the 17th after his second shot looked like his undoing.
Lurking beside the narrow green at the iconic ‘Road Hole’ at St. Andrews is arguably golf’s most famous patch of sand.
It’s only six meters wide and not quite four meters long, yet its position relative to the small green it guards and the camber of the fairway beside it makes it nigh on impossible to avoid from where Smith’s ball landed with his second shot, short of playing an ultra safe shot which would take the ball away from the pin and make a save almost impossible.
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Then leading on -19, and with superstar Rory McIlroy breathing down his neck at -18 one hole behind him on the course and Cameron Young at -17 but poised to jump up the leaderboard with an eagle, Smith was in a precarious position.
Play his third shot too cautiously and he would likely drop to -18 and leave himself vulnerable. But fail in his execution of a putt that needed to straddle the bunker, with enough pace to make it up the hill to the heart of the green without overshooting it, to give him a 50/50 shot at a par-saving putt and his Open challenge would be cooked.
This tweet from Kyle Porter, a golf writer for CBS Sports, neatly sums up the degree of difficulty.
Yet, even with the extreme pressure of the moment and the weight of history at the infamous ‘Road Hole’ against him, Smith delivered what was near enough to a golf miracle.
He was already considered one of the world’s best short game players and if that’s ever questioned, all he’ll have to say in reply is “remember the 17th at The Open”.
The mulleted Queenslander took out his putter then played his ball as close as he dared to the bunker, with enough speed so that it didn’t funnel back into it. His ball came to rest 12 feet from the hole and he duly drained the difficult by putt to stay out in front. The rest is history.
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“I was basically just trying to get it somewhere on the green,” Smith said. “The putts were just falling for me and I felt really comfortable. I just needed to get inside 12 or 15 feet, and I thought I was going to hole it. It was a good spot to be in.”
Did he consider reaching for the wedge for a chip over the bunker?
“I did,” Smith said. “It was back into the wind and I thought if I had a good enough lie I could land it over there and get it closer. It was just a risk I don’t think I was willing to take.”
Clearly, on a day when Smith’s putter was running hot, it was the right call and it turned out to be decisive.
It’s the second time this year that Smith has had to summon all his courage on the 17th hole of a big tournament to prevail, having played an audacious approach to the island green at TPC Sawgrass in the final round of his win at The Players Championship in March.
That time he admitted he got lucky, with his ball very nearly landing in the drink due to a slight mishit. At St. Andrews his execution was perfect, and it had to be on what has been deemed world golf’s hardest hole.
Indeed, the ‘Road Hole’ bunker is just one of two extraordinary obstacles that makes it so difficult. The other is a hotel, with the players forced to hit their tee shot over it before weighing up an inch-perfect approach that takes the bunker out of play on the 451-metre par four.
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Smith put his second shot in the exact spot he would have been hoping to avoid but was good enough to escape with a par on a hole that averaged 4.46 for the tournament.
Having now won two of the biggest tournaments in the world in the space of five months, Smith can count 17 his lucky number.
“Two iconic holes of the game,” Smith said. “It’s awesome. I love it.”
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