Spieth (65) takes control with closing birdie at Royal Birkdale
Walking up the 18th fairway Saturday at The Open, lined by appreciative crowds and bathed in sunshine, Jordan Spieth admitted he paused briefly to soak in the moment.
Once he made his way to the green, he grabbed the tournament by the throat.
Thanks in part to an exchange on 18, Spieth has at least a share of the lead for the third straight day at Royal Birkdale. But rather than sharing the spotlight as he did after the opening round, Spieth has now amassed a three-shot advantage over Matt Kuchar and seemingly has one hand wrapped around the Claret Jug following a third-round 65.
“Really solid round given the position we were in starting the day,” Spieth said. “I’m extremely pleased. Couldn’t ask for much more.”
Still shy of his 24th birthday, Spieth’s personal highlight reel contains no shortage of mid-range putts that have fallen ever so gracefully into the center of the hole. His reputation as a marksman from 30 feet away was built while winning two majors in 2015, and it’s one that often masks the strengths he possesses in other areas of the game.
But his gilded putter was once again on full display Saturday at Royal Birkdale, where Spieth carded his second bogey-free round of the week and reached 11 under on a course where 3 over and even par have won the two previous Opens.
Branden Grace’s record-setting 62 showed that conditions were far more favorable than the two previous rounds, and Spieth wasted little time in getting to work. He notched three birdies while turning in 31, adroitly mixing birdies with critical par saves.
Across much of the afternoon, it appeared that Spieth and Kuchar would distance themselves from the field just as Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson did a year ago in their memorable duel at Royal Troon. That sentiment still seemed plausible on the final hole, where Kuchar nearly holed his approach and Spieth barely skirted a greenside bunker.
For a brief moment, it appeared Spieth’s two-shot lead would be trimmed in half. But when they speak of The 146th Open, it’s very likely they’ll point back to the exchange on the 18th green Saturday as the point of inflection.
“When I got up to the green, I was happily shocked,” Spieth said. “And then from there, I thought this is where I normally capitalize and I kind of make a scrappy birdie.”
Spieth did what Spieth does, holing his putt from the edge of the green to elicit a thunderous ovation from the gallery. Kuchar’s attempt then lipped out, as the gravity of the miss briefly dropped him to his knees.
In the span of a few seconds, a potential one-shot lead had transformed into a comfortable three-shot cushion, and the tone of the tournament had taken a decided turn.
“That’s expected with Jordan,” Kuchar said. “I had a very good feeling about my putt, thought I’d knock it in. If Jordan made his, I was going to make it on top, but mine slid by the edge. That’s part of the game.”
Granted, this tournament is far from over. It’s a realization that Spieth knows far too well, having infamously wasted a lead at last year’s Masters. While two poor shots there kept him from a second straight green jacket, it also created scar tissue that Spieth hopes will prove beneficial this time around.
“I think I’m in a position where it can be very advantageous, just everything I’ve gone through. The good, the bad, and everything in the middle,” Spieth said. “I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on building one. So it was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward.”
The large yellow leaderboards surrounding the 18th green include plenty of big names: Stenson, Johnson, Matsuyama, McIlroy. Perhaps speaking to Royal Birkdale’s ability to identify the best players, eight of the top 11 players in the world rankings will begin the final round T-15 or better.
But U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka is the next closest to Spieth, tied for third and six shots adrift, meaning that Kuchar is likely the only player standing between Spieth and Open glory.
“I’ll be playing with him but not focused on him,” Kuchar said. “My goal is to go out and play Royal Birkdale. I’ll know exactly where we stand, but I don’t know how much that ever helps you. You just have to go out and hit the best shot for the situation.”The sun shone brightly upon Spieth Saturday afternoon as he raised his putter triumphantly above his head and doffed his cap to the crowd. There’s ample reason to believe that a similar situation will unfold tomorrow.