SOUTHPORT, England – Jordan Spieth grew up watching the most prolific golfer in a generation win 14 major championships, but Spieth’s performance Sunday in the British Open equaled anything that Tiger Woods has produced.
After having squandered a three-stroke lead on the front nine at Royal Birkdale, Spieth played his final five holes in an electrifying 5 under to hold off Matt Kuchar and win the Claret Jug (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH). Spieth, whose 24th birthday is July 27, joins Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to have won three major championships before turning 24.
Jordan Spieth, with the Claret Jug
“This is as much of a high as I've ever experienced in my golfing life,” said Spieth, who shot 1-under 69 for a 12-under 268 total in his 11th career victory, worth $1.845 million. “And I'm going to enjoy it more than I've enjoyed anything that I've accomplished in the past.”
If the outcome had seemed preordained before Spieth began the final round – he had successfully closed three consecutive 54-hole leads and eight of his past nine – it certainly didn’t unfold according to any script.
Spieth bogeyed three of his first four holes. When Kuchar, who was paired with Spieth, birdied the par-4 ninth and Spieth made a three-putt bogey, the de facto match-play final between the two Americans was all square. Spieth conceded later that he thought about his collapse in the final round of the 2016 Masters, when he blew a five-shot lead on the back nine as Danny Willett won.
“I didn't really do much wrong, just hit a couple of bad swings,” Spieth said about that fateful April day at Augusta. “And all of a sudden, it was in my own head, How could I not close out a five-stroke lead with nine to play?”
Spieth said that his nerves were calmed at Royal Birkdale once he had relinquished the lead. Yet, momentum would swing with, of all things, another bogey for Spieth.
At the par-4 13th, Spieth drove far right into the gallery, with the ball hitting a spectator on the head and burrowing into the deep fescue. Spieth reviewed his options for an unplayable lie and choose to drop on the practice range, leaving about 230 yards to the front of the green. By the time he hit a 3-iron short of the green, some 20 minutes had elapsed in the search-and-rescue odyssey. He deftly saved bogey as Kuchar made par and, for the first time since Friday, Spieth had lost the lead.
Spieth now was the pursuer, a role that he clearly relishes.
He nearly holed a 6-iron on the par-3 14th and tapped in for birdie, the first of four consecutive one-putts, to pull even again.
“We had momentum on our side, and we were tied,” Spieth said. “And all of a sudden, I felt and believed that I could win that golf tournament, when 30 minutes prior – and really the entire day after the fourth hole – I didn't feel that way.”
At the par-5 15th, Spieth reached the green in two and holed a serpentine eagle putt from 48 feet. He dropped a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-4 16th and an 8-foot birdie on the par-5 17th for a two-stroke lead heading to the home hole.
The birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie run on Nos. 14-17 will be remembered as one of the most monumental stretches in major-championship history.
“Matt didn't lose the tournament at all today,” Spieth said with the Claret Jug next to him in a post-tournament interview. “He played well down the stretch. I mean, I just had my long putts go in; his didn't. That was simply it. The Masters was a different scenario where I had full control and then I lost the wheels.”
Now, those wheels will be rolling toward next month’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., where Spieth can make more history. With a PGA title, he would be only the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods. That’s heady stuff to ponder while gazing at the Claret Jug.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli