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Talk of Saudi tour clouds Smith’s historic Open win

Andrew Burke
Andrew BurkeAFR Weekend editor

Cameron Smith’s extraordinary final round to become the first Australian since Greg Norman to win The Open championship threatens to be overshadowed as reports mount that he is about to defect to his compatriot’s Saudi-backed LIV golf series.

In the news conference following a back nine holes described as possibly the finest in the history of major championships, Smith refused to rule out joining the rebel series that has already signed up 24 players, some with eye-watering sums just to turn up.

Cameron Smith became the first Australian to win The Open since Greg Norman, who is reported to now be trying to sign his compatriot to a Saudi-backed rebel golf tour. Getty

The 28-year-old from Brisbane at first said it was “not good” to be asked about the breakaway, which has been an unwelcome sideshow during the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, considered the home of golf.

“I don’t know, mate,” he later replied. “My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.”

It’s a stance unlikely to spare him criticism if he does sign up. High-profile players, including former number one-ranked players Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, have been pilloried in the media and by crowds for taking the money in what is seen as an attempt to “sports wash” the kingdom’s tainted reputation following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Fellow Australian Adam Scott is also reported to be considering joining the Saudi-backed series. As it stands, players who join the LIV series would be banned from competing in golf’s four major tournaments.

If so, golf’s biggest events would miss a player long considered one of the most exciting on the tour just as he has truly come of age.

Cameron Smith won the 150th edition of The Open at St Andrews, the home of golf. AP

Smith’s total of 268, or 20-under par, equalled the lowest total in relation to par in majors history. It was also the lowest ever at St Andrews, beating Tiger Woods’ 19 under in 2000.

“This one’s for Oz,” the 28-year-old said afterwards.

Smith appeared to have blown his chance at St Andrews after giving up his lead with a one-over par 73 in the third round. He began the day at 12 under, four shots adrift of local favourite Rory McIlroy and young Norwegian Viktor Hovland.

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Smith made two birdies on the front nine before beginning a stunning run of five birdies in a row at the 10th. As McIlroy’s putter “went cold”, Smith could barely miss.

Cameron Smith putts around the most famous bunker in golf to reach the 17th green. Getty

That included scrambling a par on the 17th, the infamous Road Hole, by putting around the pot bunker to reach the green then sinking a 20-footer.

In the end it was his playing partner, American Cameron Young, who provided the final challenge. Young eagled the final hole to take a share of the lead, forcing Smith to make his eighth birdie of the day to reclaim the lead, and win the Claret Jug.

“I think to win an Open Championship in itself is probably going to be a golfer’s highlight in their career,” said Smith, the son of a printer who learnt to play at Wantima Country Club, a small suburban course north of Brisbane. “To do it around St Andrews, I think is just unbelievable.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland gave up a four-stroke lead as his putter went cold on the final round.  Getty

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“To do it the way I did today was pretty cool, to be back and really apply pressure, keep holing putts,” he added. “It was awesome.”

The Australian later committed to keeping his “lucky” mullet – despite his mother’s protestations – and regretted that his father had cancelled plans to come to St Andrews.

”My dad was actually meant to come over, and he pulled out in the last minute basically,” he said. “I had a quick chat with him before. He’s kicking himself now ... I really wish he was here too. It would have been such a cool week, even without this, to be at the Home of Golf. Dad loves his golf as well. It would have been awesome.“

McIlroy, who won the Open at Royal Liverpool in 2014 but has gone without a major title since, was gracious in defeat. “I got beaten by the better man this week,” he said. The Northern Irishman has been a consistent critic of the LIV Golf tour, accusing his fellow professionals of putting money ahead of ethics.

Whether he will be teeing up against Smith when The Open returns to Liverpool – or whether the Australian is banned – is expected to be revealed in the coming days.

- with wires

Andrew Burke is the editor of AFR Weekend, based in the Sydney newsroom. He has worked at the Financial Times in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and reported from across Asia and the Middle East. Connect with Andrew on Twitter. Email Andrew at aburke@afr.com

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