CHARLOTTE – The fact that Jordan Spieth won a British Open last month with nowhere near his best stuff on the greens was “extremely confidence-building.” It also is a big reason why the 24-year-old Spieth, chasing for the first time the final leg of the career Grand Slam, doesn’t feel like he’s anywhere close to being out of this 99th PGA Championship.
Spieth teed off in front of a packed 10th hole Thursday morning at Quail Hollow Club. That crowd, which included decorated Olympian Michael Phelps for all but the final few holes, stayed with the grand-slam hopeful for much of the way, even as Spieth failed to create any real excitement with his putter and eventually ended up with a few tap-in birdies as part of an opening 1-over 72.
“It just seemed like the lid was on today,” Spieth said. “I burned a lot of edges. Some were good putts, some weren’t.”
Spieth struck 32 putts in his first round, uncharacteristically losing more than two strokes to the field on the greens. The longest putt Spieth made all day was a par save on the par-4 11th hole from 5 feet, 3 inches. In total, Spieth made just 39 feet, 7 inches of putts on Thursday.
“I feel like that 15- to 20-foot range, usually see him make a bunch of putts,” said Spieth’s playing competitor Brooks Koepka, who carded a 3-under 68. “He just didn’t make any.”
The main flaw in Spieth’s short game was poor speed control. He putted an 120-footer for eagle off the green at the short par-4 14th and made par. He also had two putts from the off the green that he sent well past the hole, at Nos. 5 and 6. He bogeyed both holes.
“I don’t think I missed any short putts today,” Spieth said. “I just had really poor speed on my really long ones that created technically three two-putts that were three three-putts, one of them I putted off the green, the other two were off the green.”
After the back-to-back bogeys on the front nine, Spieth had a bit of a wait on the seventh tee box. He hadn’t been himself; he was frustrated, uptight and more demonstrative than usual. That’s when he gathered himself and realized that at 3 over and with three of the easier holes on the course coming up, he could salvage a decent round.
“Let’s get three looks and see what happens,” Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, told his player.
Spieth gave himself those three looks and converted on two of them. At the par-5 seventh, Spieth hit his 3-hybrid – the club replaced the 3-iron he used from the driving range Sunday at Royal Birkdale – to the back fringe and two-putted for birdie. Then on the short par-4 eighth, he hit a beautiful pitch to 2 feet.
“If I would’ve finished par-par-par I may have thrown myself out of the tournament,” Spieth said.
Spieth was just five shots back of morning leader Thorbjorn Olesen when he wrapped up his round. He was frustrated but also confident. Spieth struck the ball well, especially with the driver, a club that has given him a little bit of trouble lately.
“If you told me I was going to hit my driver the way that I did today, I would’ve definitely thought I shot a few under par,” Spieth said.
And as Spieth put it: “I can’t putt any worse than I did today.”
If Spieth is right, then that still leaves plenty of hope that this week could be the week for Spieth as he begins his quest to join exclusive company. Just five players have won all four majors – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player.
“I know I’m still in it but I know that (Friday)’s round becomes that much more important,” Spieth said. “… I’ve gotta make up ground; if I’m five back at the start of the day I’ve gotta be less than five back after Friday to really feel like I can play the way that this golf course needs to be played and still be able to win.”
And complete the career Grand Slam.