ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Tiger Woods had an emotional early exit Friday from the British Open, possibly for the last time at St. Andrews. Cameron Smith can only wonder if the Open 150 will be his arrival as the undisputed elite player.
Smith has already won The Players Championship this year and has risen to No. 3 in the world. His eight-under-par 64 gave him his first major lead, by two strokes over PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young. Rory McIlroy lurked for another shot behind.
“Obviously it’s a very good place to be,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve been in this place a lot in the last two years, and things haven’t gone my way yet.”
Woods crossed the Swilcan Bridge without stopping to pose for photos, saying “it felt like the whole tournament was there” as he walked the final 356 yards of what would otherwise be a long day of 75 to miss the cut.
Woods did not withdraw from major golf championships or the British Open. He just isn’t sure a hardware-attached right leg or fused lower spine will allow him to compete when the Open returns to St. Andrews again.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “For me, this could have been my last British Open here in St. Andrews. And the fans, the cheering and the heat, it was an amazing feeling.”
Around the time Woods was waving to thousands of fans packed into so many spaces around St. Andrews, Smith was making birdie after birdie to take the lead. Just when it looked like he couldn’t get any better, he hit a 65-foot eagle putt on the 14th hole.
Young overcame some mistakes and closed out with a birdie for a 69, putting him in last group with Smith before the weekend.
McIlroy received some of the loudest applause, for a shot, not a bye, with his 25-foot birdie into the tough Road Hole on the 17th. He missed a birdie opportunity on the 18th. Still, it was important to him to back up a great start (66) with a solid round (69).
He was tied with Viktor Hovland, who delivered his own thrill as he holed out from 139 yards for an eagle on the par-4 15th hole and finished with a birdie for a 66.
Smith was at 13-under 131, the lowest score from 36 holes at the St. Andrews Open.
Even a weekend without Woods is set for some great theater.
Dustin Johnson, who has a green Masters jacket and a US Open title, played early in the best conditions of the week: a light rain that put out part of the Old Course fire and then a warm sun, for a 67. It was four shots back. Right 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 greens of St. Andrews, and he plays fearlessly. He opened with three birdies in a row and then started to drift around the loop at the other end of the field.
He putted an 18-foot putt on No. 7, birdied from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth hole and then drove the 10th green and two putts from about 90 feet for a third birdie in four holes.
The big blow came on the par 5 of the 14th when Smith buried the long putt for an eagle. It looked as if he had just rolled into a short one for the pair. That’s his game. That’s his style.
“I don’t get too excited or too angry. I like to stay in the middle,” Smith said. “A lot of people say it’s boring to watch. But that’s how I do my golf.”
At the other extreme is McIlroy, one of the most dynamic players of his generation. With four majors early in his career and always a promise of more, he’s seen as one of the best candidates to fill at least part of the void when Woods isn’t around.
That explains the departure times. The R&A was trying to get close to the right moment when Woods and McIlroy would cross paths: Woods going one way to 18, McIlroy the other way to first. This is how it developed.
McIlroy looked up and tilted his cap at Woods.
“Everybody hopes it’s not the end of his Old Course career,” McIlroy said. “I think he deserves, we deserve, to have another chance.”
Woods wasn’t the only early exit. Collin Morikawa became the first defending champion to miss the cut since Darren Clarke in 2012. Phil Mickelson missed the Celebration of Champions exhibition on Monday, the Champions Dinner on Tuesday and the weekend. He missed the cut for the third time in a row 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 in the previous three majors this year. He won the Canadian Open last month. He feels that he has been playing consistently well.
It would be easy to assume, given his experience in the majors, that he’s right where he wants to be. But that starts with Smith, who has already beaten the No. 1 player (Jon Rahm) at Kapalua and the strongest course in golf at The Players Championship this year.
“I just need to go out there and play my game and play my golf for the next two days and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith goes out there and shoots another two rounds like he did the first two days, I’m going to have a hard time winning the tournament. So I have to go out there and do my best and take care of myself and hopefully that’s good enough.”