2017 Open Championship Royal Birkdale
Spieth “flips switch” – wins by three over
by M. James Ward
Final rounds at major championships are always fraught with high stakes pressure – a sense of mystery at how things will fare. When Jordan Spieth started his final round he possessed a three-stroke lead and many opined since he had played two of the three rounds at Royal Birkdale with nary a bogey on his scorecard – the general feeling was the Texan would likely continue his path to the Claret Jug without any serious hiccups.
That changed with Spieth's opening tee shot which found the deep rough and showed a golfer looking more intent on not trying to lose rather then looking to win.
The range of emotions Spieth would endure for the balance of the day showed a resilience few could ever imagine. The Spieth prior to the 14th tee was a light switch in the "off" position. His demeanor showed a man in free fall mode. The one resurrecting himself from the 14th to the final hole showed an "on" position that simply featured blinding light for utter brilliance in emerging from the deepest of dark shadows. One man – two different storylines – one outcome. Jordan Spieth earned his 3rd major championship at the age of 23 and the incessant talk about how he squandered a five shot lead going into the back nine at the 2016 Masters is now in his rear view mirror.
Spieth is just four days removed from his 24th birthday and his win The Open puts him on a path to close out a career Grand Slam in winning next month's PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, NC. If that should come to pass – Spieth will be the youngest golfer to have achieved such a distinction – surpassing the existing record held by Tiger Woods. He is the youngest to have won 3 major along with 11 PGA Tours wins. His victory at Birkdale was his second in a row following his victory at The Travelers Championship in late June. Spieth also joins the legendary Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to have won three different majors before the age of 24.
Spieth's play for the first 12 holes during the final round was simply tough to watch. To be charitable his earlier wizardry on the greens abandoned him with short putts bedeviling Jordan. As he approached the 13th tee his lead now gone -- tied with playing partner Matt Kuchar. It was Kuchar who demonstrated the steadier play during the final round and was poised to win his first major event.
After Kuchar found the fairway at 13 Spieth's tee shot soared way, way right. The ball eventually coming to rest on the other side of high dunes which form the right hand side of the hole. The ball's position was deemed unplayable by Spieth and he chose to exercise one of the relief options – going as far back as he wished in a direct line from the hole itself. That meant dropping a ball on the adjacent practice range. A lengthy debate with rules officials ensued on the proper procedures and in moving the sizeable gallery to provide some space for Spieth to play. All told – a time period of 25 minutes would occur before Spieth would play again. His 3rd shot was pushed slightly and avoided a series of pot bunkers on the right side of the 13th. Left with a pitch shot over a high shoulder area fronting the pin Spieth deftly played his 4th shot to eight feet. Kuchar would barely miss his putt for birdie and Spieth amazingly drained his putt for bogey. When scores of double or triple bogey were clearly present – it was Spieth who provided the 2017 version of Houdini.
It was at this point the previous "off" light switch turned "on" and featured a stretch of awesome golf and was a clear and convincing counterpoint to the hapless Spieth who preceded it.
Now trailing Kuchar by one stroke and standing on the tee of the par-3 14th – Spieth watched Kuchar reach the green with his tee shot. The 6-iron Spieth hit never left the flagstick nearly landing in the hole after the first bounce. Left with a 5-foot birdie putt Spieth rolled the ball into the hole and the two were again tied.
Both men attempted to reach the green at the par-5 15th but only Spieth managed to find the green. Kuchar played a superb bunker shot to 6 feet. Then Spieth delivered a knockout putt from 50 feet for eagle – the ball diving into the center of the cup with eager certainty. Kuchar would hole his birdie putt but now trail by one.
At the par-4 16th both it was Spieth again delivering a follow-up blow – a 30-foot birdie putt – extending the lead to two.
Knowing full well the par-5 17th could very well determine matters – both men found the green in the regulation stroke with Spieth resting no more than 7 feet away for birdie. Kuchar's birdie putt from 18-feet was made and the pressure again resided on Spieth to keep his lead at two. He drained the putt – the lead remaining two.
The final hole showed smart restraint by Spieth by avoiding hitting his inconsistent driver off the tee. His approach landed on the green and with Kuchar having his approach plug into a green side bunker the end was swift and certain with Spieth tapping in for one-under-par 69 round a 268 total and winning by three over Kuchar. All four rounds of his play were under Birkdale's par of 70 – the first champion to do so at the club which has now hosted ten Open Championships and long be remembered for the 146th Open Championship played here. Spieth's four round total tied for the 3rd lowest in Open history.
The four-hole stretch by Spieth from the tee shot at the 14th to the birdie at the 17th was pulverizing – birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie. Five-under-par simply overwhelmed Kuchar who until the final hole bogey had countered with two birdies of his own following the 13th hole.
Going into this year's Open Championship there was much talk about golf's youth brigade – much of the attention on the dashing talent from Spain – Jon Rahm. Spieth emphatically showed incredible grit during a rollercoaster day of emotions. The Texan also showed that comparisons of his game to others now playing are pointless. At such a young age Spieth is now mentioned in rarified air – what Nicklaus and Woods did at a comparable age. Hard to imagine the epic Henrik Stenson / Phil Mickelson battle last year at Royal Troon could be topped but the manner by which Spieth had to overcome things is one for the ages.
Herbert Warren Wind, the esteemed golf chronicler, once said of Jack Nicklaus during the 1963 Masters when the Golden Bear had the lead during the final round – lost it – then reclaimed it to earn his first green jacket – such things are rare for humans to turn around given the weight of emotions and the wherewithal to right the ship when all seems lost.
Jordan Spieth did what Wind said of Nicklaus then. Quail Hollow and the PGA Championship awaits.