ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Tiger Woods made an early and emotional start to the British Open on Friday, possibly for the last time at St. Andrews. Cameron Smith can only wonder if the 150th Open will be his arrival as an undisputed elite player.
Smith has already won the Players Championship this year and moved up to No. 3 in the world. His 8-under 64 gave him his first lead in a major, by two strokes over PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young. Rory McIlroy was hiding another blow behind.
“It’s obviously a really good place to be,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve been to this place a lot over the past two years, and things haven’t quite gone my way yet.”
Woods crossed the Swilcan Bridge without stopping to pose for photos and said he ‘felt like the whole tournament was there’ as he covered the final 356 meters of what was otherwise a long day of 75 to miss the cut.
Woods has not retired from major championship golf or the British Open. He’s just not sure if a straight leg held down by hardware or a lower spine that’s been fused will allow him to compete when the Open returns to St. Andrews.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “For me, it felt like it could have been my last British Open here at St. Andrews. And the fans, the standing ovation and the warmth, it was an amazing feeling.
Around the time Woods was greeting the thousands of fans crammed into so many spaces around St. Andrews, Smith made birdie after birdie to take the lead. Just when it looked like it couldn’t get any better, he landed a 65-foot eagle putt on the 14th hole.
Young overcame a few errors and closed with a birdie for a 69, putting him in the final group with Smith going into the weekend.
McIlroy received one of the loudest cheers – for a shot, not a farewell – with his 25-foot birdie over the tricky Road Hole on 17th. He missed a birdie opportunity on the 18th. Still, it was important for him to back up a strong start (66) with a strong lap (69).
He was tied with Viktor Hovland, who delivered his own thrill as he drilled 139 yards for the eagle on the par-4 15th hole and finished with a birdie for a 66.
Smith was 13-under 131, the lowest 36-hole score at the St. Andrews Open.
Even a weekend without Woods is set up for great theater.
Dustin Johnson, who already has a Masters green jacket and a US Open title at Oakmont, played early in the best conditions of the week – light rain that extinguished some of the fire at the Old Course and then a warming sun – for a 67 He was four shots behind. Close behind was Masters champion Scottie Scheffler with another 68.
Smith is building a reputation as a great putter, a great weapon to have on the St. Andrews greens, and he plays fearlessly. He started with three birdies in a row, then started going around the loop at the far end of the course.
He putt 18 feet on the No. 7, birdied from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth, then drove to the 10th green and two putts from around 90 feet for a third birdie in four holes.
The big blow came on the par-5 14th when Smith buried the long eagle putt. He looked like he made a small throw for par. It’s his game. It’s his style.
“I’m neither too excited nor too angry. I like to stay in the middle there,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s boring to watch. But that’s how I practice my golf.
On the other side is McIlroy, among the most dynamic players of his generation. With four majors early in his career and still a promise of more, he’s considered one of the best candidates to fill at least some of the void when Woods isn’t around.
This explains the departure times. The R&A was trying to get close to the right time when Woods and McIlroy would cross paths – Woods going one way to 18, McIlroy the other way to first. That’s pretty much how it happened.
McIlroy looked over and tilted his cap at Woods.
“Everyone is hoping this isn’t the end of his Old Course career,” McIlroy said. “I think he deserves – we deserve – to get another chance.”
Woods wasn’t the only early departure. Collin Morikawa became the first defending champion to miss the cut since Darren Clarke in 2012. Phil Mickelson missed the ‘Celebration of Champions Monday, Champions Dinner Tuesday and the weekend. He missed the cut for the third straight time at the British Open.
For now, McIlroy is trying to add his name to the greats who have won an Open at St. Andrews. He has finished in the top 10 at all three previous majors this year. He won the Canadian Open last month. He feels he has always played well.
It would be easy to assume, given his experience at the majors, that he is exactly where he wants to be. But it starts with Smith, who has already beaten the No. 1 player (Jon Rahm) in Kapalua this year and the strongest champ in golf at the Players Championship.
“I just need to get out there and play my game and play golf for the next two days and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith comes out and shoots two more rounds like he did the first two days, I’m going to have a very hard time winning the tournament. So I just have to go out and do my best and worry about myself and I hope that’s good enough.
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