ST. LOUIS – In 1965, Gary Player was still in his 20s when he came to Bellerive Country Club for the U.S. Open. He arrived with three of golf’s major championships under his belt, and he departed with the fourth, beating Kel Nagle in a playoff to complete the career Grand Slam.
This week, Jordan Spieth, still in his 20s, comes to Bellerive having won three of the four majors. If he can win the 100th PGA Championship (tee times), he also would circle the bases and join Player, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Tiger Woods in the exclusive Grand Slam Club.
This has been a year of improbable performances. Brooks Koepka recently captured a second consecutive U.S. Open. Phil Mickelson broke a 101-tournament winless drought. Michelle Wie won her fifth LPGA title, four years after winning her fourth. In short, crazier things have happened.
Whether it’s likely to happen is a different story. More than a year has passed since Spieth won his last major title, the 2017 British Open. But the playing field has not always been level.
The 25-year-old Texan had a bout of mononucleosis in December, normally his down time, when batteries get charged, the engine gets tuned and the pump gets primed for the season ahead. Spieth’s best golf depends on it. He doesn’t overpower courses; he outmaneuvers them. He does it with meticulous preparation and cerebral refinements.
But his meticulous side was short-changed this season. He lost weight, and his batteries never reached four bars. We’ve seen what can happen when Spieth’s winters are compromised.
After a 2015 in which he won two majors and nearly two more, he never de-compressed. He took advantage of opportunities, traveled internationally and never had an “offseason.” One might argue it showed in 2016, when he had two victories instead of five and eight top-10s instead 15. After the infamous three-hole debacle on Sunday and a tie for second at Augusta, he was not a factor in the other three majors.
In 2017, Spieth put himself back on the radar with his British Open victory at Royal Birkdale, and put himself in the Grand Slam green room. He couldn’t complete the square at Quail Hollow, tying for 28th at the PGA.
“I think I was probably a little more anxious last year,” Spieth said on a rainy Tuesday morning at Bellerive. “I think, going in, there was a big focus on it, given it was right after the Open Championship…. I was in form, and going to a place that, if I worked up the leaderboard, it would create a lot of noise.
“I feel somewhat under the radar this year. I've kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don't mind it.”
Under the radar, perhaps, but Spieth is no longer under the weather. Mono patients typically underestimate the lingering effects. For the better part of 2018, he has been playing catch-up. Consider that he ranks 136th in total putting and 140th in three-putt avoidance. That’s right; we’re still talking about Jordan Spieth.
But it is mid-August now, eight months later. And Spieth is coming off a British Open in which he contended until the waning moments. He still is in the green room and he would like nothing better than to Slam the door on his way out.
“This tournament will always be circled until I'm able to hopefully win it someday,” Spieth said. “It will always be circled to complete the career Grand Slam, which will ultimately achieve a lifelong goal for me.”
Where better than Bellerive, where it’s been done before. Where better than St. Louis, where his grandfather Bob “Gramps” Julius was born and raised, and extended family resides, where ticket requests have spiked and where lots of familiar faces will be in the gallery.
“My mom's side of my family comes from St. Louis,” Spieth said. “My mom doesn't, but my grandpa was born here and raised here, and so it's a lot of my mom's cousins… A few family members have traveled from St. Louis and seen me play before, but there will be quite a few out that haven’t, that get the opportunity here, which is really cool.
“It’s really fun when you get an opportunity to play in front of family, and my grandpa will be out here this week, and I love having him around. He comes to as many as he can.”
You know what else would be really fun at Bellerive? Just ask Gary Player.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD