Heavy mettle: Jordan Spieth shows toughness in Open triumph

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Heavy mettle: Jordan Spieth shows toughness in Open triumph

Professional

Heavy mettle: Jordan Spieth shows toughness in Open triumph

SOUTHPORT, England – The turning point in Jordan Spieth’s British Open victory came on Royal Birkdale’s 13th hole.

It just didn’t turn out the way most people expected.

A near-disaster turned into euphoria as the 23-year-old won his third major championship following the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open Championship. Spieth’s closing 69 gave him a 12-under-par 268 total and a three-shot win over Matt Kuchar.

A Spieth victory in the PGA Championship next month will break Tiger Wood’s record as the youngest player to win the career grand slam. After his last six holes in the 146th running of the game’s oldest championship, few doubt Spieth’s ability to deliver at Quail Hollow.

Spieth looked to have blown another major championship when he hit his drive some 60 yards right of the 13th fairway into near oblivion. A moment of Jean Van de Velde proportions nearly unfolded.

Spieth’s ruling at the 13th will go down in major championship lore. The Texan spent much of the next 20 minutes discussing options with European Tour chief referee John Paramor. He took an unplayable lie and dropped the ball on the practice range, got a free drop from several equipment trailers, then hit his driving iron over the tall dunes. A chip and a putt later, and Spieth walked off with a bogey caddie Michael Greller called the “greatest by a mile. I hope I never see one like that again.”

It’s a testament to Spieth’s maturity he had the nous to explore his options.

“Having been in unplayable situations before, I just asked the question, ‘Is the driving range out of bounds?’ ” Spieth said. “I got the answer no and I thought, well then, that’s a much better location for me to hit the next shot, because I can get it much closer to the green and it saves me almost a full stroke from going back to the tee.”

If the ruling was one of the smartest moves of Spieth’s career, the ensuing 8-foot bogey putt might be the most important shot he’s ever played.

“The putt on 13 was just massive,” Spieth said. “I was walking off the green and Michael said, ‘Hey, that’s a momentum shift right there.’”

Another 20 minutes after that and only one player was going to lift the Claret Jug, and it wasn’t playing companion Kuchar, even though Kuchar had surged into a one-shot lead after 13 despite being three behind at the start of the day. Spieth birdied the par-3 14th hole with a 6-iron that almost hit the flag and stopped 4 feet away.

“When that (putt) went in was my first vocal appreciation of the day,” Spieth said. “We had momentum on our side, and we were tied. All of a sudden I felt and believed that I could win that golf tournament, when 30 minutes prior and really the entire day after the fourth hole I didn’t feel that way.”

Spieth’s eagle at the par-5 15th hole was followed by back-to-back birdies, and Kuchar was on the floor.

“He really turned it up,” said Kuchar, who played Nos. 14-17 in 2 under but found himself two shots behind standing on the 18th tee.

“It’s crushing,” Kuchar said. “It hurts.”

It would have been a hard loss for Spieth, too.

No one would have predicted his mini-collapse over the first four holes of the final round. Bookmakers had him as a 1-4 favorite to win, so certain were they that he’d cash in on his three-shot overnight lead. 

Yet Spieth was a shadow of the player he’d been the first three days when he bogeyed three of the first four holes to see his lead disappear. With Kuchar playing steadier golf, Greller intervened to remind his man of posing with legendary athletes Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps on a recent holiday in Mexico.

“He said: ‘I’ve got something to say to you. Do you remember that group you were with? You’re that caliber of athlete. I need you to believe that right now, because you’re in a great position in this tournament.’” Spieth said. “Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps are the greatest to ever do what they did, and I’m not. But if you believe that you are, then you’re almost as good as being that.”

Royal Birkdale was Spieth’s first great chance to atone for losing the 2016 Masters, a tournament he had in his grasp until he hit two balls in the water on the 12th hole in the final round. We won’t know if he’s laid that to rest until April, but this win will help him believe he can close out another Masters next time he contends.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself unfortunately, and not on purpose, before the round today,” he said. “Just thinking this is the best opportunity that I’ve had since the ‘16 Masters. Closing today was extremely important for the way I look at myself.”

Greller agrees.

“He’s hurt a lot since that ’16 Masters,’ the caddie said. “I’m sure somewhere in there, some doubts had crept in. It was just cool to see him with his back against the wall, more than 12 at Augusta in ’16, to see what he did just shows his character and his grit.”

Swing coach Cameron McCormick was on hand to watch his student named “Champion Golfer of the Year.” The humble Australian knew his player would bounce back from adversity.

“Perhaps the blessing was what happened on 13,” McCormick said. “That was such a shock that it was a good system restart, a reboot.

“It’s a perfect example of the person he is, the character he is.”

Roll on to the PGA Championship in Charlotte, N.C. After the way Spieth came back from near disaster at Royal Birkdale, few doubt he’ll someday join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the Grand Slam club.

 

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