Spieth takes winding road to Open win at Royal Birkdale
Jordan Spieth stood on the 13th tee Sunday with his head in his hands, watching his ball sail toward Manchester and wondering how it all went wrong.
The coronation that seemed inevitable entering the final round of The Open had wobbled disastrously off course, as Spieth stumbled out of the gates and struggled to steady his nerve.
Then suddenly, as if transformed into some mythic combination of Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods, he took command of the tournament and etched his name on the Claret Jug as Champion Golfer of the Year.
In the end, the three-shot advantage with which Spieth started the day was still intact as he tapped in for a third career major championship. But oh, how winding was the road from Point A to Point B.
The chaos and confusion of the 13th hole nearly engulfed Spieth’s championship. After hitting perhaps the most errant shot of his professional career, he was left to wander between equipment trucks that lined the driving range at Royal Birkdale, discussing with rules officials where he could possibly drop after taking an unplayable lie.
It’s the stuff that has broken strong men before. It appeared, in the moment, to have dealt a hefty crack to Spieth’s foundation 15 months after he let the Masters slip through his fingers.
Instead, it gave birth to one of the most sublime rallies in championship history.
“I don’t know why I can’t make it a little boring sometimes,” Spieth said.
After a discussion that lasted more than 20 minutes, Spieth somehow scrambled to make bogey. It marked the first time since Friday that he didn’t hold at least a share of the lead, but it also galvanized his resolve and set the stage for a memorable finish.
“That putt on 13 was just massive,” Spieth said. “When I hit the tee ball, I put my hands over my head walking up, thinking, ‘Oh boy, this could be 6.’ And all of a sudden it doesn’t change in one hole.”
The comeback started quickly from there, with a near-ace on the par-3 14th, one that Spieth eyed purposefully as he strode toward the green still clinging to the shaft of his 6-iron.
It peaked on the following hole. With Kuchar in close for birdie, Spieth rolled in a 50-footer for eagle, raising his putter triumphantly as the ball crested over the edge of the hole.
“Go get that!” he shouted to caddie Michael Greller, already heading to the next tee with the slightest of grins creeping over his face. He was once again a shot in front.
Spieth added another birdie on 16, and then another on 17. He somehow managed to condense a week’s worth of made putts into a 60-minute stretch with the championship in the balance, eviscerating Kuchar despite a strong finish of his own.
“It was impressive stuff when a guy does something like that,” Kuchar said. “All you can really do is sit back, tip your cap and say, ‘Well done.’ And it was certainly a show that he put on.”
It was a magical scene, but one that seemed wholly unnecessary at the start of the day. Spieth had spent the week in complete control, his only four bogeys coming amid heavy rains and blustery winds during the second round.
Staked to a three-shot cushion, this was an opportunity for Spieth to put to rest the notion that scars from the 2016 Masters still linger. It was supposed to be an easy walk against an amiable but unintimidating combatant.
But Spieth was out of sorts right from the moment he realized that a seemingly accurate tee shot on the first hole had buried into ankle-deep rough.
“That’s just crap, man,” Spieth muttered. “That’s crap. Not getting rewarded for good shots.”
“You’re 168 (yards) front. Get over it,” Greller implored.
An opening bogey was followed quickly by two more, and the three-shot lead with which Spieth started the day evaporated by the time he reached the fifth tee. When Spieth missed a short par putt on No. 9 to again fall into a tie with Kuchar, the whispers and murmurs became full-throated gasps.
“I wasn’t questioning myself as a closer, but I was questioning why I couldn’t just perform the shots that I was before,” Spieth said. “I knew the conditions were harder, but I just wasn’t executing. And sometimes you just can’t really figure it out, put your finger on it.”
Spieth often cites “we” when discussing his performance to emphasize Greller’s role, and the finale in Southport was every bit a team effort. Greller became a combination of life coach and yardage book, guiding his player to pull the right club amid the melee on the 13th hole and also stopping him mid-freefall to instill some confidence.
“I definitely thought about what he was saying while I was over some of those key 3- to 4-footers that I made,” Spieth said. “I mean the way it was looking, those weren’t easy. Those 3-footers were 10-footers to me. And all of a sudden, the lid came off and the 30-footers were 2-footers to me.”
It proved to be a circuitous route, and a much more eventful afternoon than he had hoped for. But after missing out on the Claret Jug two years ago at St. Andrews by the slimmest of margins, the coveted chalice now sits firmly in his grasp.
“This is as much of a high as I’ve experienced in my golfing life,” Spieth said. “I’m going to enjoy it more than I’ve enjoyed anything that I’ve accomplished in the past.”