True believer: Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth expects to contend at Carnoustie

Jun 15, 2018; Southampton, NY, USA; Jordan Spieth reacts to a shot on the fourth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills GC - Shinnecock Hills Golf C. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

True believer: Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth expects to contend at Carnoustie

PGA Tour

True believer: Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth expects to contend at Carnoustie

Minutes after Jordan Spieth posted a morning-wave 78 at Shinnecock Hills, Fox cameras spotted the 24-year-old sitting on a shaded driving range tent platform, wedge in hand, bookended by his instructor and caddie.

Spieth exuded an end-of-his-rope demeanor while demanding solutions from his two must-trusted golf advisors. Instructor Cameron McCormick fiddled with his water bottle cap, attempting to assure his student. A spent Michael Greller looked like he had carried two Tour bags for 36 holes.

Even after missing the cut at Memorial heading into the U.S. Open, Spieth had felt better about his game headed to Shinnecock Hills. This despite an uninspired Texas swing, where extreme putting woes surfaced again. The signs have been beyond concerning all season for the world-renowned putter, who is statistically one of the PGA Tour’s worst in 2018 from inside 3 feet (201st ranking). Compounding his frustration: Spieth consistently has ranked in the Tour’s top five in strokes gained off-the-tee and top 20 in approach-the-green, making him one of the season’s best ballstrikers.

“Everyone goes through peaks and valleys of results in any part of your game. I just got a little off in setup, and I’m really starting to bring it back now,” he said of his putting before the Open. “It feels very good.”

A similar rinse and repeat occurred in his post-U.S. Open start at the Travelers, where Spieth flew out of the gate with an opening 63 only to backtrack in the second round in the same frustrating fashion he’s seen most of the year.

With the Claret Jug still in his possession and the incredible self-pride he says went with hearing his name mentioned as Champion Golfer of the Year, Spieth’s high-energy approach to everything he does has shifted from one of urgency and determination to appearing, at times, frenzied and desperate.

Spieth heads to Carnoustie a better and more consistent ballstriker than ever while retaining greenside shots that few of his peers can muster. And the one trait detractors said would hold him back has also been an under-reported strength: Spieth has picked up 6 yards off the tee since a historic 2015 season that has been compared to the very best in major championship history (finishing first, first, T-4 and second).

Spieth able to ignore the noise

Spieth also retains a passion for taking in information and culling the grist to his advantage. With a caveat.

On the U.S. Open’s eve, Spieth shocked media, fans and U.S. Golf Association officials when he was not aware of the new two-hole playoff system making its debut at Shinnecock Hills.

While there is no crime in such ignorance, that one of the most meticulously prepared and quietly engaged players on the planet was blissfully scouting out Monday weather reports for a possible 18-hole playoff spoke to how focused Spieth has been on turning his game around.

“Shows you what I know,” he said in a self-deprecating save.

Always one of golf’s most engaging and insightful interviewees, Spieth also telegraphed a new approach to future media chats.

Jun 15, 2018; Southampton, NY, USA; Jordan Spieth signs autographs after completing the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills GC - Shinnecock Hills Golf C. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Even though he missed the cut, Jordan Spieth still had time for autographs Friday at the U.S. Open. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

“I mean, you guys have a job to do, and if we’re shutting you off, then, you know, I don’t feel like that’s right, because you guys also are able to push our agenda, too,” Spieth said.

“I think that there have been times I’ve offered too much information that I regretted afterwards, but at the same time, I just try and answer the questions open, honestly and probably should get shorter in the future.”

One topic Spieth still enjoys discussing at length: his career-defining third major win at Royal Birkdale in the 2017 British Open. As with Phil Mickelson’s Open triumph four years prior, something about his three-stroke win over Matt Kuchar will forever stick. The drama involved, the iconic moments and the ability to overcome one bizarre hurdle suggests the win will forever be the week most associated with a career just in its infancy.

The infamous ‘go-get-it’ eagle

Spieth points to the 6-iron he hit to the par-3 14th as the signature shot from his final-day duel with Kuchar. Fans will counter that his “go get it” eagle putt at the 15th stole the show, where Spieth’s impromptu homage to old-time player-caddie ball retrieval was inspired by early-week highlight viewing and spoke to how he has absorbed the work of previous generations.

Both 14 and 15 took on greater significance due to the 30-minute escapade on the hole prior. Spieth’s tee shot ballooned into the cross breeze, and his ball headed for the tallest dune at Birkdale only to bounce off a spectator and far right of the course’s most difficult two-shot hole. The ball sat deep in a horrendous lie of fescue and fern that precluded a wedge back to the fairway. So Spieth infamously took control of the situation by accepting an unplayable-lie penalty stroke and playing from Birkdale’s practice area.

“I got home to Dallas the next day, and I couldn’t help but turn on the final round, and especially, actually fast forwarded until the tee shot on 13. I didn’t watch the first 12 holes.”

Why would he? The round was spiraling while Kuchar was unrelenting in his consistent navigation of Birkdale, creating a duel that will rank just behind Nicklaus-Watson at Turnberry in 1977 and Stenson-Mickelson at Troon in 2016.

“I don’t even know exactly what happened on that tee shot,” Spieth said.

Once the ball was found, he was too focused on sorting out logistics with rules officials a bit thrown off by the situation to ever sense how long Kuchar was made to wait.

“For me, it went by pretty quickly because it was, OK, decision here, decision here, now I need to drop here,” Spieth said of his DVR re-watching. “But with the coverage, with the commercials, and then they come back, and it seems like we haven’t even moved. It was like, man, that really did take a long time. That was kind of tough to watch.”

Spieth played his Titleist 718 T-MB prototype 3-iron from the tight range turf over the dune and faced a difficult up-and-down around a pot bunker. His wedge shot and made putt forever will be underrated in telling the story of his win. As will the calming effect of an incredible bogey.

“After the 13th hole, everything went slower to me than what you saw on TV,” he said. “I was like, wow, I kind of stepped up and hit that shot. But for me it was this whole regrouping and re-motivating and resetting a goal. And all that kind of took place pretty quickly, I guess, in real-time.”

For all of his 2018 ups and downs, Spieth is armed with confidence from his constant major championship contention since turning professional in 2013. After all, Spieth and Jack Nicklaus are the only players in the modern era to have won three of the four men’s majors before their 24th birthdays.

“I’ve kind of had a career’s worth of experience in three or four years, which is I think advantageous going forward, the way I look at it,” he said.

The Texan is conscious of similarities in major performances featuring seeming control of the lead followed by “it kind of falling out of my hands,” before “bringing it back.” In a season looking eerily like several of his major championship final rounds, Spieth can return to Carnoustie with the Claret Jug in hand and bank on his recent struggles as the 13th-hole equivalent of 2018.

“Going forward, I can certainly look back on that as, man, positives can come out of what really seems like a day that’s not going my way,” Spieth said. “That’s all you need, is a little bit of that kind of belief.” Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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