It must have felt like a punch in the gut or a kick in the teeth. It was that stunning and swift. Matt Kuchar had Jordan Spieth on the ropes. To be more precise, Spieth entangled himself in the ropes after spending just under three hours unable to find the golf course with his tee shots in the final round of the British Open on Sunday.
And in a matter of an hour, Spieth climbed off the mat and delivered the blows that would bring him his first Open and his third major championship. It was an ending to a major the likes of which have not been seen in anyone’s memory. Charl Schwartzel made birdies on the final four holes to come from nowhere and win the 2011 Masters. But Spieth’s 5-under run in a four-hole stretch – after golf that was far from his best – has to stand as the best turnaround in major history.
Any doubts about Spieth’s ability to close after his unnerving collapse at the 2016 Masters should be put to rest immediately. What Spieth did on Sunday at Royal Birkdale not only demonstrated this 23-year-old’s resilience but his ability to make something out of nothing when it looked like nothing was all that he was going to get. How he shot 69 in the final round is way beyond anyone’s ability to explain.
Spieth went a shocking 3 over in his first four holes, erasing his three-shot lead. The best putter in the world bafflingly couldn’t shake one in from inside 6 feet. And after Spieth’s driving-range bogey at the 13th, Kuchar had to have liked his chances with a one-stroke lead with five holes to go – especially the way Spieth was playing.
In fact, Spieth’s remarkable 5 at the 13th should go down in Open history alongside Seve Ballesteros’ “car park” birdie in 1979 when he went on to win at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Kuchar has no reason to be downhearted. He, too, shot 69 in the final pairing, albeit in a more conventional way. Yes, there were a couple of putts that he could have made and didn’t. But he didn’t lose the Open. It was taken from him.
Kuchar, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, certainly is good enough to win one of these. He seemingly appears on nearly every major-championship leaderboard. But he never makes a big shot or a big putt at a critical time. At age 39, it’s still not too late, but time is conspiring against him.
What else we learned from the Open:
Rory McIlroy has issues. He has as much physical talent as anyone who plays the game, yet he can go from brilliant to awful and back again in mere moments. He was 5 over in his first nine holes on Thursday and ended the championship at 5 under, a top-five finish.
In Saturday’s third round, when it seemed as if the whole world was shooting 66 or better, the time was right for McIlroy to post a low number and get himself into the fight. But he managed only 1-under 69 while Spieth was shooting 65 and found himself nine shots from the lead after three rounds.
Does McIlroy have swing problems? Does he need another set of eyes than from his only coach, Michael Bannon? Is he having difficulty adjusting to his new equipment and new golf ball? Is he still on his honeymoon, having been married in April?
No one knows the answers to his mercurial play, possibly not even McIlroy himself.
Speaking of which, Dustin Johnson looks far from the No. 1 player in the world. Having made the cut at the Open by only two strokes, Johnson shot 6-under 64 on Saturday but chopped it up with a 77 on Sunday. After winning his first major at last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, he hasn’t threatened the lead in a major since, withdrawing from this year’s Masters and missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Some said after Johnson’s U.S. Open title that majors would come in bunches for him. But he still looks puzzled much of the time, unable to figure out how to play links golf or many other major-championship venues.
Erin Hills should have been tailor-made for Johnson. It was long, with plenty of room off the tee. But he drove it into plenty of trouble in his 75-73 missed cut. At Royal Birkdale, Johnson’s third-round 64 came in perfect conditions. But when the wind started blowing on Sunday, he couldn’t find fairways, hitting only 26 of 56 for the week.
He had better improve upon that stat if he is to take on Quail Hollow for the year’s final major, the PGA Championship. Brutal Bermuda rough and firm greens will penalize those who stray from the fairways.
Unless, of course, you’re Jordan Spieth. He only hit 24 fairways at Royal Birkdale. But Spieth has something that no one else has. Something that you won’t find in any statistic. It simply can’t be measured.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf