Jordan Spieth works wizardry to escape Royal Birkdale with Claret Jug

Jordan Spieth-British Open Ian Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Spieth works wizardry to escape Royal Birkdale with Claret Jug

Professional

Jordan Spieth works wizardry to escape Royal Birkdale with Claret Jug

SOUTHPORT, England –  Jordan Spieth posted a picture from a recent sojourn to Cabo in which he stood alongside the best basketball player of all time (Michael Jordan), the best Olympian of all time (swimmer Michael Phelps) and a Super Bowl-winning quarterback (Seattle’s Russell Wilson). 

Sunday at Royal Birkdale in the 146th British Open, when Spieth’s mind was spinning, he was struggling with a loose swing and everything was running faster than the trains that churn past the course, his schoolteacher-turned-caddie, Michael Greller, stopped Spieth off the seventh tee to remind him of something.

“You remember that group you were with last week?” Greller asked his young player. “You belong in that group.”

Jordan Spieth-British Open

Jordan Spieth and few of his associates got together in Mexico earlier this month. (Jordan Spieth/Instagram)

Those words would ring through Spieth’s ears on a tumultuous final day at Birkdale, when the back nine rains kept spitting and Spieth, who’d been in or near the lead since Thursday, appeared on the verge of spitting the bit at another major. He worked himself into a dangerous spot. 

He was walking early on short misses with the putter and spraying the ball all over the Lancashire Coast. It came to a head on the difficult 499-yard 13th, when he hit a drive that traveled farther right than your most conservative Republican uncle. It struck a spectator in the noggin and came to rest atop a grassy hill some 125 paces from the fairway below.

Spieth, who’d squandered his last Sunday major lead (2016 Masters), was watching another one slip away.

But instead of making a big number at 13 and fading away, he fought. That’s what Spieth does. Whereas many of the game’s stars boast strengths across various parts of their games (driving, say, for Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, short game for Jason Day), Spieth does two things great: He fights, and he scores. The latter is a lost art that went out with Raymond Floyd.

As competitor Matt Kuchar stood by in the 13th fairway, Spieth took nearly 20 minutes to sort through his crazy predicament atop the hill, resulting in him taking an unplayable, then a drop, then hitting a terrific blind third shot with his driving iron that pulled up 25 yards short of the green. It was the stuff of Twilight Zone madness. Standing near the green, spectators collectively wondered: Will we even see Jordan Spieth today?

Mind you, has a champion of any of the previous 145 Opens ever had to call over an official to inquire, “Is the driving range out of bounds?”

It wasn’t, and he got up and down for a brilliant bogey, perhaps the best bogey every made in a major, and from there a switch flipped. It was as if somebody tossed him a can of spinach, and out came Popeye. Jordan Spieth is special, and standing on that 14th tee, trailing Kuchar by a shot, he was determined to prove it.

Jordan Spieth-British Open

Jordan Spieth savors his Claret Jug to Matt Kuchar’s applause. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

He nearly holed a 6-iron at the 199-yard 14th (4 feet, birdie), hit 3-wood from 256 yards to 50 feet to set up an eagle at 15, poured in another bomb (25 feet) at 16, and matched Kuchar’s birdie at the par-5 17th. That guy whose world was spinning so fast atop that hill on 13 shot 4-under 32 on the back nine to win his third major.

It truly was the stuff of legends. No youth or grown adult who braved the rain and cold of that back nine to watch ever will forget it.

Zach Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler – Spieth’s housemates for the week in Southport – hung out behind the 18th green to congratulate him. Johnson, who allowed Spieth to drink from his champion’s Claret Jug after winning at St. Andrews two years ago, was still in disbelief.

“The first thing I think of,” Johnson said, “is something that all of us as competitors, as athletes, strive to have, and that’s the wherewithal, and certainly just the overall mental fortitude, to be able to come back from disaster, almost. Or a wall. 

“To do it one day to the next, bad round to good round, yeah. But to do it in the middle of a round? There are only so many guys who have done that.”

One thinks of Tiger, of course, and this back nine was Tigeresque, keeping Kuchar from landing his first major at 39. The near ace, the eagle, two more birdies on top of it … it was as if Spieth was the rabbit speedily pulling away from the greyhounds at the track. 

His victory also kept us from venturing into that dark other side, the possibility that Spieth, four days shy of his 24th birthday, could squander another major from pole position, and begin to question his prowess as a closer. 

Instead, Spieth called up the image of that Cabo picture, the one of those special athletes with rare talents. There is no doubt he fits right in, evident on Sunday evening as he cradled that jug.

“All I needed,” Spieth said Sunday night, “was just a little bit of self-belief to produce what I had there.”

Birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. “You belong in that group,” he kept thinking. The rest, of course, was history. Delivered by a young golfer who appears destined to make lots of it. 

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