SOUTHPORT, England – Remember when Jordan Spieth switched putters a few months back at the AT&T Byron Nelson and almost broke the internet?
Yeah, that was nuts.
Fast-forward two months and the Golden One is now on the brink of breaking one of the game’s most unique records, becoming the first player to win 10 PGA Tour events and three majors before age 24.
It wasn’t exactly a New York minute, but it is an indication of how quickly a player of Spieth’s caliber can go from adrift to A game; if not the measure of his unrelenting resolve.
He told us not to panic back in Dallas. We didn’t listen.
Since then he’s won a dramatic overtime bout against Daniel Berger at the Travelers Championship and played the first three frames at The Open like someone created a Tom Watson-Jack Nicklaus hybrid in a lab.
Always a threat on the greens, whether he’s wielding his trusty Scotty Cameron 009 prototype or not, but it’s been Spieth’s tee-to-green game that may well secure him the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
On Saturday in nearly perfect conditions, he hit 11 fairways and missed just four greens in regulation on his way to a 5-under 65 and three-shot advantage over Matt Kuchar.
“Our goal was to shoot 4 under today. I told [caddie Michael Greller] I wanted to get two aside, get to 10 under. Nothing changed, it played exactly how we thought,” said Spieth, whose bogey-free round was eclipsed only by Branden Grace’s historic 62 and a 64 from Dustin Johnson.
It’s far too premature to proclaim the 146th Open over, there’s enough history etched into the claret jug to discourage any such assumptions. But Spieth’s record here is rather relevant. He’s 2-for-4 in converting 54-hole leads/co-leads in majors and 8-for-9 in his career on the PGA Tour after three round.
Just by proximity, Kuchar is the most likely candidate to derail what began to look like a coronation late Saturday. Once again, the last two-ball on Sunday will be a study in contrasts.
Spieth is demonstrative and effusive, while Kuchar seems to embrace a more subdued, simpler approach. That Kuchar played the ’98 Open at Royal Birkdale as an amateur when Spieth was 5 years old could also serve to highlight the glaring juxtaposition between the two leading men.
Although the duo is a full field goal clear of the rest of the field, Kuchar, who is at 8 under after a 66 on Day 3, was reluctant to subscribe to the two-man race theory, at least just yet.
“I think it only matters maybe come the 71st hole to adopt your strategy. 70th hole. To go, hey, maybe I'm three-down, now maybe I need to be a little more aggressive than normal,” Kuchar said. “Other than that I don't know that you adapt strategy a whole lot.”
Without any help from Spieth, who has made just four bogeys all week, the alternative might be something in the neighborhood of what Grace accomplished on a picture perfect day along the Irish Sea. The South African became the first player to shoot 62 in a men’s major championship, that he didn’t know of his historic fate until after his round only made the story more surreal.
But that doesn’t seem likely for a variety of reasons. A forecast that calls for much higher winds on Sunday would be the primary culprit, but there’s also the inherent pressure of playing with a Grand Slam title on the line.
Rory McIlroy may have given a glimpse of that unique stress on Day 3, when he charged out with three birdies over his first five holes only to fade to a 1-under 69 that left him nine strokes off the pace at 2 under.
“Once you're up there near the lead of a major championship or an Open Championship you don't play quite as free as you may have done the first two days,” McIlroy conceded.
If Spieth falters there’s no shortage of would-be champions to step up with world Nos. 1 and 2, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama, respectively, poised within nine strokes; along with U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and defending Open champion Henrik Stenson.
But that’s a big if.
Two months ago when Spieth went searching for answers off the face of a new putter the idea that he could go wire-to-wire at Royal Birkdale would have been met with a measure of skepticism.
Although Spieth has done special things in his career, for much of the early summer he didn’t have the look of a world-beater. From mid-February through the Nelson in late May his best finish was a tie for 11th at the Masters and he missed back-to-back cuts before things fully clicked starting at last month’s Travelers Championship.
“I thought Hartford was big,” Spieth said. “I went in and I knew I didn't feel great with the putter, and it's been kind of off and on this year and I was able to win feeling really poorly with the putter and that's never happened before, going back to junior golf.”
What Spieth is doing is special and he knows it. As he made his way up the 18th hole on Saturday, Kuchar approached: “This is pretty cool to be here walking up the last hole of a British Open,” he beamed.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Spieth slipped his yardage book back in his pocket and embraced the moment.
“Everyone is giving us an ovation and it's a time to appreciate that, enjoy the walk,” Spieth said.
Although the high-octane cast assembled atop the leaderboard may still make things interesting, absent any real drama on Sunday it’s best to simply appreciate what Spieth is accomplishing and how far he’s come in two short months.