Cameron Smith heads into the weekend two shots clear in the Open Championship

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — While Tiger Woods left St Andrews early and emotionally on Friday, Cameron Smith can only wonder if the 150th Open will be his arrival as the undisputed elite player.

Smith has already won the Players Championship this year, moving up to No. 3 in the world. His 8-under 64 at The Open gave him his first lead in a major, by 2 shots over PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young. Rory McIlroy lurked another shot behind.

“It’s obviously a really good place to be,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve been in this place a lot over the last few years and things haven’t quite panned out the way I’d like.”

Young overcame a few errors and finished with a birdie for a 69, putting him in the last group while Smith headed into the weekend.

McIlroy got one of the loudest cheers — for a shot, not a bye — with his 25-foot birdie on the tough road hole on the 17th. On the 18th, he missed a birdie opportunity. Nevertheless, it was important for him to back up a great start (66) with a solid lap (69).

He tied on points with Viktor Hovland, who delivered his own thrill, potting from 139 yards for Eagle on the par-4 15th and finishing with a birdie for a 66.

Smith was 13-under-131, the lowest 36-hole score at The Open at St Andrews.

Even a weekend without Woods, who missed the cut after carding a 3-over-75, is set for big fuss.

Dustin Johnson, who already has a green Masters jacket and a US Open title at Oakmont, played early in the best conditions of the week – light rain that took some of the fire out of the Old Course and then a warming sun – for a 67. He was 4 shots behind. Close behind was Masters champion Scottie Scheffler with another 68.

Smith is building a reputation as a great putter, a great weapon on the greens at St. Andrews, and he plays without fear. He opened with three straight birdies and then began to move around the loop at the other end of the course.

He cupped an 18-foot putt on #7, birdied 30 feet on the par 3, and then drove the 10th green and made two putts from about 90 feet for a third birdie in four holes.

The big hit came on the par-5 14, when Smith buried the long eagle putt. He looked like he’d just thrown in a short for par. This is his game. That’s his style.

“I don’t get too excited or too angry. I like to stay there in the middle,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s boring to watch, but that’s how I treat my Golf.”

At the other end is McIlroy, one of the most dynamic players of his generation. With four big wins early in his career and always a promise for more, he’s seen as one of the better candidates to fill at least part of the gap when Woods isn’t there.

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 Monday’s Celebration of Champions exhibition, Tuesday’s Champions Dinner and the weekend. He missed the cut for the third straight British Open.

At the moment 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 last three majors this year. He won the Canadian Open last month. He feels he’s played consistently well.

Given his experience in the majors, it would be easy to assume he’s exactly where he wants to be. But that starts with Smith, who defeated the No. 1 player (Jon Rahm) in Kapalua and the strongest field in golf at the Players Championship earlier this year.

“I just have 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 and shoots two more rounds like the first two days. I’m going to have a really hard time winning the tournament. So I just have to go out there and do my best and worry about myself, and hopefully that’s good enough.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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