By Dave Kaplan
What a performance!
We already knew that Jordan Spieth was gritty, but the Texan’s play down the stretch at Royal Birkdale on Sunday was some of the gutsiest and most brilliant golf that I have ever seen.
Spieth started his final round three shots clear of Matt Kuchar, but struggled to find both his form and the fairway early on. The 23-year-old made three bogeys in his first four holes and dropped back into a tie for the lead with Kuch at 8-under par after the opening nine. However, it only took one more bogey for Spieth to flip the switch and go into full-out assassin mode for his final five holes.
On the 13th tee, Spieth pushed his tee shot so far to the right that it took over 20 minutes for the Texan to confer with rules officials about where he could take his relief. After a lengthy delay, Spieth dropped his ball in the practice area and hit a tremendous blind bullet back towards the green that landed just in front of the putting surface. Spieth followed that up with a spectacularly paced chip over a couple of ridges to around eight feet and then drained his putt. Needless to say, that bogey will surely go down as one of the greatest pressure-filled bogey saves in major championship history!
That miraculous scramble opened up the floodgates and, even though he now trailed Kuchar by one stroke, Spieth came roaring back with a near-ace — and subsequent tap-in birdie — on the next hole.
On the par-5 15th, Spieth hit the green in two shots and then dropped this bomb from 48 feet for eagle to go up one:
On 16, he made a second straight putt of more than 40 feet to double that lead and then played the par-5 17th perfectly, setting up a short birdie putt that the Texan converted with ease.
Kuchar also made a birdie on 17 to get within two shots of Spieth, but the young gun did not stumble on the final hole and made par to close out his third career major.
As we have come to expect from the two-time US Junior Amateur winner, Spieth demonstrated pure class and a maturity beyond his years in his trophy ceremony speech. Before praising Greller for the invaluable role that he played in the victory, Spieth thanked the R&A, Royal Birkdale’s gracious membership, and the 235,000 spectators that came out to the event over the week, calling them “the most respectful and educated fans in the world.” He then turned to Kuchar to congratulate him for a tremendous battle throughout the week. “What a great champion Matt Kuchar is and what a class act,” Spieth said. “I took about 20 minutes to play one of my shots today and Matt took it in stride and smiled. There are not many people, I think, who would have done that and it speaks to the kind of man that you are. You set a great example for all of us.”
Of course, Spieth didn’t have to say all of that, but that, too, is just the kind of gracious person that he is!
Kuchar, like Spieth played fantastic golf all week long. He hit the ball remarkably straight off of the tee, remained within striking distance of the Texan throughout the tournament, and was even all alone atop the leaderboard for a moment on the back nine before Spieth caught fire. Even though he finished three strokes back of Spieth, the Floridian still recorded the best finish of his career at a major tournament and his second Top 5 at a major this season, having also finished in a tie for fourth at the Masters. Not surprisingly, Kuch was able to appreciate the silver lining in his runner up finish immediately after the round.
“As tough as it is to be this close and finish second, I am sure that it will lead to me continuing to work hard and push me harder to try to finish one place better,” Kuchar said. “I think things like these continue to push people and I know that’s what it will do for me.”
Austin Connelly, the 20-year-old with dual Canadian and American citizenship who surprised golf fans everywhere with his strong iron play and steely nerves in his first-ever major appearance, mirrored Kuchar’s sentiments after the round. Connelly might be a smaller player, but he is clearly a big talent. The 2015 Jones Cup winner, who played his way into the Open by winning a four-man playoff at a qualifier earlier this month, made 14 birdies and one spectacular eagle en route to his T-14 finish.
Connelly does not have PGA Tour status yet, but his stock and confidence are both surely on the rise after the week he just had. I would not be at all surprised if his success this past week proves to be a catalyst for Connelly taking his career and game to the next level.
Before I shift the focus of this column back to Spieth, I should probably mention the record-breaking score of 62 that Branden Grace threw down on Moving Day. The South African became the first player in major championship history to break 63 after making eight birdies and no bogeys in nearly perfect scoring conditions at Royal Birkdale. Grace, who began Saturday’s round 10 shots back of Spieth, changed his fortunes for the week with that sensational round and ended up finishing the week in a five-way tie for sixth place.
Yet, despite Grace’s 62, Connelly’s coming-out party, and the vastly different weather conditions that we saw throughout the week in Southport, the takeaway from this tournament is still undoubtedly the dominance that Spieth displayed down the stretch of the tournament.
Spieth doesn’t turn 24 until Thursday and he has already won a Green Jacket, a US Open, and a Claret Jug. That is just ridiculous!
The Texan has modestly stated in the past, and reiterated once again after his round on Sunday, that comparisons between him and some of the game’s other legendary players lack merit. However, the numbers seem to suggest otherwise.
With his third career major title on Sunday, Spieth became the youngest American to ever win the Open. He also surpassed the two major wins that Tiger Woods had won at the age of 23 and joined Jack Nicklaus as the only two players in history to win three legs of a career grand slam before their 24th birthdays. If Spieth wins the PGA Championship, which kicks off at Quail Hollow in two weeks, he will become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.
And there is no reason to think that he won’t get it done. Since Woods’ last major victory in 2008, Spieth leads all players in golf with a major win percentage of 16.6% (3 wins in 18 total starts, excluding his appearance at the US Open as an amateur in 2012. For comparison’s sake, McIlroy is a distant second in this category with a major win percentage of 11.7%).
Spieth’s incendiary play down the stretch at Royal Birkdale after temporarily losing the lead demonstrated clearly that he has made a full psychological recovery from his Masters collapse last year. Moreover, that birdie barrage also suggested that the young gun, much like Woods and Nicklaus in their primes, is capable of shifting into another gear when the situation calls for it.
Forget the idea of Tiger ever breaking Nicklaus’ major record. Instead, let’s start talking about whether Spieth can pull it off!
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap