Jordan Spieth is the 2017 Champion Golfer of the Year
I have written, tweaked and deleted this opening paragraph several times since the end of the 2017 Open Championship. Not because I thought what I wrote was bad, and not because it had mistakes that needed correcting. It just didn’t feel like any of it was good enough at capturing the magnitude of Jordan Spieth’s third major win; I felt like my words had to live up to what I had just seen unfold before my eyes. That’s what watching Spieth does to you. Trying to find the right words to continually describe his greatness has become an increasingly difficult task, especially with how it all unfolded on Sunday at Royal Birkdale. As Ben Coley said, how do you describe the indescribable?
It goes without saying that Spieth winning this tournament was not a surprise by any means. Depending on the book that you used, he was either the favourite or the number two behind Dustin Johnson coming into the week and that was for obvious reasons. He won his last start at the Travelers Championship, he’s been a model of consistency in 2017 and Royal Birkdale isn’t a course that you can bring to its knees with devastating power. In a week where the weather was supposed to be unpredictable, on a course that demands precision and mental fortitude, Spieth was likely going to be there at the end, barring a shocking turn of events. This was especially true when he carried a three shot lead over Matt Kuchar into Sunday’s final round.
Of course, a shocking turn of events is something that we’ve seen with Spieth in the past. As much as Spieth would like to move on from the 2016 Masters, the unfathomable scenes that led to Danny Willett’s win are always going to be part of his story, for better or worse. He’s talked about how everything that happened that day would end up being a positive for him in the long run, and it’s hard to argue that point when you look at what he’s done since. But watching him on Sunday at Birkdale, I’d be lying if I said that when he started to struggle, that I didn’t think about that day; about how Spieth was feeling in this moment, and about how he was going to react to adversity in the first major Sunday where he’s had a real chance to win since that Sunday afternoon in Georgia fifteen months ago. He was supposed to get this done.
The first few holes at Birkdale were playing difficult on Sunday, as evidenced by the scores of the final groups and they got to Spieth as well. The three shot lead was down to two, and then to one and by the time the final group made the turn, Spieth and Kuchar were level and only because Spieth had struggled to a 3-over start while Kuchar was even. Spieth was all over the place off the tee, the irons weren’t dialled in, and the putter had run cold. Kuchar was playing the way we all expected he would, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth for Spieth. As they stepped onto the 13th tee, Spieth and Kuchar remained tied at 8-under par. After Kuchar played into the right rough, it was Spieth’s turn to play.
Spieth swiped at the ball and sent it so far right that he may have been closer to a different course on the Open rota.
” Oh, this is WAY right. I mean, this is WAY right. This is 100 yards right of the centre of the fairway. ” – Roger Maltbie
” You saw him grab his head like ‘Oh my. Oh my.’ ” – Peter Jacobsen
The best players hit bad shots in tournaments like any other player, but just like the 2016 Masters, a miss of this much from a player like Spieth was utterly shocking. The parallels to him dunking one in the water at the 12th at Augusta last year, including the Zapruder style examination of his club face at impact, were all there and it looked more than likely that we were looking at the loss of a few shots and a chance for Kuchar to take control. That was made even more likely when Spieth got to his ball, buried in a dune and forcing him to examine all of his options as he took an unplayable lie while Kuchar waited for his turn to play.
The scene was chaotic, and the television captivating. In the span of 20 minutes, Spieth was more air traffic controller than golfer, laying out routes and directing people around the course like he was one of the many orange coated marshals on site. Johnny Miller implored him to go back to the tee from the broadcast booth, but after playing Tetris with all of the spectators, Spieth headed back on the same line to the practice range for his drop. After caddie Michael Greller attempted to yell a general yardage down to his man amongst the equipment trucks, Spieth proceeded to hit his third shot back into play and somehow salvaged a bogey. The fact that it didn’t go so much worse than that was a real turning point, and even though Spieth walked to the 14th tee down a shot to Kuchar, it had to feel like a victory.
Haotong Li went on to shoot what will likely become the most forgotten final round 63 in major history, and despite having the lead, Kuchar isn’t typically the type of player that’s going to run away from the pack. After it all appeared to come crashing down for Spieth on the 13th tee, he was able to keep it together and not double down on the mistake. He could deal with bogey. Through thirteen holes, we had seen just about everything go wrong for Spieth and it still felt like his tournament. Then, it all started to go right.
A near ace on the par-3 14th set up a birdie.
Kuchar’s lead would last all of one hole, and they were tied heading to the par-5 15th. Spieth had played the hole in 3-under for the first three days, including an eagle in Friday’s second round. With Kuchar in the greenside bunker, Spieth played to the front left portion of the green and it was a virtual certainty that he would two putt for birdie before heading to 16. Except, he had other ideas.
Spieth’s point to the hole and order to Greller to “go get that” is the kind of unabashed confidence that we see from Spieth when he gets going, and even though Kuchar would make birdie to stay one back, it was at this moment that it felt like the tournament was over. When Jack won the Masters in 1986 and told Jackie that his ball was right as soon as it left the club face on 16, it was a moment and it’s something that we still talk about to this day. Not that it needed one necessarily, but Spieth and Greller gave us the modern version at Birkdale, and it was electric.
For good measure, Spieth would roll in birdies on 16 and 17 and after playing the final five holes in 5-under par, he had a three shot win over Kuchar. It was the lead he started the day with, and despite everything that happened, it was the lead he ended with.
I hate using the undefinable “it factor” to describe players. It always feels like a disservice to how good someone is at what they do; a way to talk positively about someone who has obvious shortcomings. With Spieth though, is there really a better way to explain who he is and what he does? He doesn’t overpower a course like Rory or Dustin, and yes, he’s an elite iron player and fantastic putter, but look at what happened at Birkdale on Sunday. Pretty much none of those positives came together for him until he stepped up to the 14th tee. When it did come together, he was a runaway train that wasn’t going to be stopped and it wouldn’t have mattered what Kuchar did or if it was anyone else beside him. It was his mind and mental acuity that kept him involved when the physical side wasn’t keeping up its half of the bargain, and it’s an advantage that he has over just about anyone else who steps onto the tee. It was truly remarkable to watch him play down the stretch. For a long time on Sunday though, it felt like there was a malaise over him, culminating in that drive off the planet on 13 and it was that comeback that turned a relatively pedestrian tournament into one of the craziest major championship in recent memory.
Professional golf tournaments, and major championships especially, are littered with examples of players who get off to rocky starts and never get it back together. Established players like Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson have done this in a bunch of tournaments, and the list of “surprise” names at the top of a major board who have fallen back to the pack is a mile long. I always talk about how every player at this level is so good that any of them can win any week, and that’s the truth. Any of them, when they have everything firing, are capable of posting four low numbers and winning a tournament, but there are few players out there who can win when their game isn’t on point.
We always used to marvel at how Tiger would go out and turn a round of 75 into 71 to stay a tournament, or win when it was clear that he didn’t have his ‘A’ game. Much like everything else that he did, that wasn’t normal and neither was this. It would have been so easy for Spieth to fold, and so simple for people like me to make the comparison to the Masters last year and wonder about where his head was at on the biggest stages. Most other players probably would have done just that, but not him. You can make the argument that no one really pushed Spieth all that hard, but the bodyblows that he absorbed, whether internal or external, were very real and he rose above them in spectacular fashion.
I started this piece by mentioning that I didn’t really know what to say about Spieth, and to be honest, even after writing this much, I still don’t really know what to say. What we watched from Spieth at Royal Birkdale wasn’t Mickelson and Stenson at Troon, nor was it Tiger at Pebble or even Branden Grace on Saturday. It wasn’t the dominant runaway victory that we tend to associate with pure greatness, but in another way, that’s exactly what this was. What we saw at Royal Birkdale was special, and in a few weeks, Jordan Spieth will head to Quail Hollow for the PGA Championship, and as crazy as it sounds, a win will allow him to complete the career grand slam at just 24 years of age.
That would be pretty special, too and I can’t wait to see what happens.