Jordan Spieth tightens grip on Claret Jug

ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Jordan Spieth tightens grip on Claret Jug

Professional

Jordan Spieth tightens grip on Claret Jug

SOUTHPORT, England – Jordan Spieth sat in an interview two days before the start of The 146th Open Championship and proclaimed that his season already has been a great one.

Sorry, we’re not buying it.

Sure, it’s nice to be a multiple winner again for a young player who already has collected 10 PGA Tour titles at age 23, joining only Tiger Woods in getting there before 24 (which he’ll turn July 27). But Spieth would not be sitting by the fire at home in Dallas this holiday season believing he’d had a “great” campaign with only the AT&T Pebble Beach and Travelers trophies on the mantle.

No. Possible. Way.

Those trophies are quality trinkets, for sure. But great, truly great – especially when you are a world-beater named Jordan Spieth – is defined by winning majors and making one’s mark on history. There remains work to be done at Royal Birkdale, a proper British links on England’s Lancashire Coast, and certainly it won’t be easy. There are some mighty players behind him, and Saturday brought a scoring barrage. But Sunday at Birkdale, the stage – and control of the 146th Open Championship – will belong to Spieth.

On a Saturday when the wind lied down at Birkdale and yet another major record tumbled – South Africa’s Brendan Grace shooting the first 62 in a men’s major championship – Spieth made sure that nobody would forget about him. There is always some magic dust around Spieth when he gets on a roll, and that was the case Saturday evening, when the clock was nearing 8 beneath darkening clouds and he pulled off a major reversal on the final green.

Veteran Matt Kuchar, seeking his first major and trailing by two shots at the home hole, hit a beautiful shot in tight at the 473-yard 18th, his ball even scaring the hole as it trickled some 6 feet past. Spieth hit a very good drive and a very average second, even thinking his ball would leak or bounce into a right greenside bunker.

But his ball stayed up on top, on the edge of the putting surface, checking up nicely. And when that happened, there was little doubt left as to what the putt would do. Spieth just has that knack. His putt took a little wiggle to the left at the last minute and tumbled dead-center into the hole. Kuchar then missed his birdie putt. And suddenly Spieth (65) led not by one, but by three, at 11-under 199.

Kuchar, who shot 66 despite a sloppy double-bogey at the par-4 16th, will again join Spieth in the day’s final group. He is at 8-under 202. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka (68) and Austin Connelly (66), a 20-year-old Canadian who lives in Dallas and has been friends with Spieth for years (they share the same coach, Cameron McCormick), are 5 under, six shots back, and will compose Sunday’s penultimate group.

The little extra air Spieth was walking upon was due to a fortunate break at the final hole. That’s links golf golf for you.

“When I got up to the green,” Spieth said, “I was happily shocked. And then from there, I thought this is where I normally capitalize and make a scrappy birdie … that one just felt good looking at it.”

Spieth, who has wrestled with the high expectations left in the wake of his brilliant 2015 major season – he won two (Masters, U.S. Open), went to the 72nd hole with a chance at a third (Open), and finished two shots back at a fourth (PGA) – has carried himself with a certain swagger since stepping upon the grounds at Birkdale. He just looks like the student in class who sits there smugly confident because he knows more than all the others.

“I thought Hartford (Travelers, where he won June 25 by holing a bunker shot against Daniel Berger in a playoff) was big,” he said. “I went in and I didn’t feel great with the putter, and it’s been kind of on and off this year, and was able to win feeling very poorly with the putter. That’s never happened before, going back to junior golf.

“Being able to do that gave me a confidence. And then I’ve had a lot of rest. I just feel rested.”

And he’s looking so good that he’s leaving the rest of the field weary. With the exception of a hang-on-for-dear-life 69 in the wind and rain on Friday, Spieth’s golf has been relatively stress-free. He was credited with 14 greens in regulation on Saturday, but he had the putter in his hands for birdie runs 16 times. It was a breezy 65 on a day that he knew he had to go low to keep separation.

Spieth’s detailed game plans, forged each day before play along with caddie Michael Greller, have been astute, button-tight and spot-on. Though he teed off Saturday with a two-shot lead, he also knew from watching morning play on TV that Birkdale, on this day at least, was very vulnerable. So he had to shift into a more aggressive game plan. He made five birdies, stealing one at the last, and no bogeys; his 65 gives him three opening rounds in the 60s for the very first time in a major.

Asked to describe it right after he walked off the golf course, Spieth didn’t blink.

“Phenomenal. I thought it was phenomenal,” he said.

His game plan for Sunday? Keep the confidence high, and more of the same. His reward could well be his first Claret Jug. Then, and only then, his season can be upgraded from very good to great.

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