SOUTHPORT, England — When things couldn’t have looked worse, Jordan Spieth never looked better.
The young Texan was in the midst of a monumental collapse Sunday in the 146th British Open that was reminiscent of the calamity he produced in the 2016 Masters, when he blew a five-shot lead with nine holes to play. This time, at Royal Birkdale, his three-stroke lead with 18 to play had vanished by the fourth hole, and Spieth looked lost, frustrated and defeated on the ancient land by the Irish Sea.
His struggles continued for eight holes and then his tee shot on the par-4 13th wound up 40 yards to the right of the fairway and disappeared into high, thick grass, forcing him to take a penalty drop. Make that an adventurous, bizarre penalty drop that took 20 minutes and found Spieth on the driving range by the equipment trucks despite a massive sand dune blocking his view of the green.
Somehow, some way, that’s when Spieth turned his fortune around.
From the moment he finally hit his approach to the 13th from 235 yards, Spieth authored the latest chapter in his ever-growing legend. With remarkable brilliance, Spieth started doing Spieth things as he managed to make a miracle bogey on the 13th. He canned a “massive” putt from 7 feet and then summoned a red-number tear by going birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to win the oldest championship in golf.
With a 1-under-par 69, Spieth, who turns 24 on Thursday, finished at 12 under and three shots clear of playing partner Matt Kuchar (69) to become the Champion Golfer of the Year. And he is now the second-youngest player to win the first three legs of the career grand slam, bested only by Jack Nicklaus.
What did Jordan Spieth say to his caddie after his clutch eagle at the British Open?
“Today took as much out of me as any day that I've ever played golf,” said Spieth, whose shaky start included four bogeys in his first nine holes. “ … Showed some resiliency and give a lot of credit to my guy (Michael Greller) on the bag for that. As you can imagine, thoughts come in from my last scenario when I was leading a major on Sunday. All of a sudden it creeps into your head. I was so confident and all of a sudden, the wheels have kind of come off everything. And how do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end? It took a bogey to do so.”
Spieth denied Kuchar his first major championship triumph. Paired for the second consecutive round, Kuchar took the lead when Spieth made his bogey on 13 but couldn’t match his foe on the last five holes. Then again, who could have?
“It’s crushing. It hurts. And it's an excitement and a thrill to have played well, put up a battle, put up a fight,” Kuchar said. “You work so hard to get to this position, to have a chance to make history and win a championship. You don't get that many opportunities. And to be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it's a hard one to sit back and take. ...
“Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way in the finishing stretch. It was impressive stuff when a guy does something like that. All you can really do is sit back, tip your cap and say, ‘Well done.’ It was certainly a show that he put on.”
Haotong Li, at 21 the youngest Chinese golfer to play in the Open, closed with four birdies to shoot 63 and finished third, six shots behind Spieth. Rory McIlroy closed with a 67 to tie for fourth with Rafa Cabrera Bello (68), seven shots behind Spieth.
Spieth’s name is now engraved on the shiny, gray Claret Jug, which will join his green jacket and silver U.S. Open trophy he captured in 2015. He now stands on the doorstep of history, just a Wanamaker Trophy away from joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to complete the grand slam. His first chance to join the immortal group comes next month in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.
“It's a career goal,” said Spieth, the only player to win 11 PGA Tour titles and three majors before turning 24. “Growing up playing golf, I just wanted to be able to play in major championships and compete with the best in the world, and things have happened very quickly. And it's good and bad, because a lot comes with it. And a lot more attention versus just being able to kind of go about your own thing. And I never realized how underrated that was. I wanted to be in this position but then, it becomes harder when it doesn't go your way. And you're harder on yourself because you expect so much. Therefore, I'm going to thoroughly enjoy this.”
A different, noticeable swagger was about Spieth upon his arrival to this seaside village, along with a combination of poise, experience and confidence that he ultimately was forced to call upon. He’s wiser and more comfortable now wrestling with the high expectations left in the wake of his brilliant 2015 major season, when he won two majors, five titles in all, the FedExCup and was one stroke out of a playoff in the British Open and was runner-up in the PGA Championship.
He had won his last start three weeks ago in the Travelers Championship, where for the first time he won on Tour without putting well. His three-week break included a trip to Cabo, where he hung out with two Michaels – Phelps and Jordan.
After setting up shop in a large rental home with Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, where a lot of gin rummy and snooker was played, Spieth and Greller started drawing up the blueprint to master Birkdale and the vagaries of links golf.
Through three rounds Spieth did what he had to do — he went low when conditions were ripe for scoring — shooting 65s in the first and third rounds. And he survived when conditions were horrendous — a 69 in the second round.
And then he started going sideways in the final round. That’s when Greller got into his ear on the tee box of the seventh hole.
“Michael did a great thing today,” Spieth said. “He said, ‘Do you remember that group you were with in Cabo last week? You're that caliber of an athlete. But I need you to believe that right now because you're in a great position in this tournament. This is a new tournament. We’re starting over here.’ ...
“And I definitely thought about what he was saying while I was over some of those key 3- to 4-footers that I made on 7, 8, 11 and 12. Those 3-footers were 10-footers to me. And all of a sudden the lid came off. And the 30-footers were 2-footers to me.”
After the bogey on 13, which Greller said was the greatest bogey his boss ever made “by a mile,” Spieth nearly made an ace on 14, made eagle from 40 feet on 15, dropped a 25-footer for birdie on the 16th, then matched Kuchar’s birdie on the 17th from 10 feet.
“He’s hurt a lot since that ’16 Masters,” Greller said. “And I’m sure somewhere in there some doubts had crept in. He just said, ‘You know what? I know how to do this.’ It was just cool to see him with his back against the wall. To see what he did just shows his character and his grit.”
Johnson, the 2015 Open champion, was among many friends waiting for Spieth behind the 18th hole. He, too, was amazed at what Spieth did.
“Words fail me,” Johnson said. “I can’t fathom it. Those are the intangibles, and the things I just don’t understand. I’m not suggesting I can’t do it.
“He just does it all the time.”