OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – You know the deal, in the playoffs things can change faster than a New York minute, although to be accurate it took the better part of 20 minutes on Saturday to completely shake things up at the Northern Trust.
In consecutive groups, co-leaders Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Jhonattan Vegas bogeyed the opening hole at Glen Oaks. Just like that, Dustin Johnson went from absolute gridlock to gliding along like he was heading east on the Long Island Expressway after a long holiday weekend.
That solitude didn’t last. It never does in these parts.
Spieth tied Johnson with a 21-footer for birdie at the fifth and pulled away with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 7 and 8 on his way to a 6-under 64 which tied for the day’s lowest round and set him three strokes clear of Johnson and a cool five shots ahead of everyone not named Dustin.
Glen Oaks has proven to be a formidable first-time test, particularly the club’s outward loop that has played nearly a stroke harder than the closing nine, but unless there’s a similar early shakeup like the one that highlighted Saturday’s round this could quickly turn into a walk-off for Spieth.
“There's a lot of bogey, birdie, two-, three-shot swings on holes out here because if you're in the fairway, a lot of them become birdie holes versus in the rough they become really difficult pars,” Spieth said. “So anything can happen tomorrow.”
Of course Spieth would say that, it’s what he’s supposed to say and of all the 24-year-old’s attributes humility is by far his most endearing, but some of those who will begin Sunday chasing didn’t share his optimism.
When Tiger Woods donned the black and red on Sunday in his prime with a field goal advantage there was a general sense of admiring acceptance that everyone else was playing for second place. Spieth isn’t that guy. Maybe he’ll get there when he wins 11 more majors, but there is something about the Golden Child that gives the field pause.
“You didn't see Tiger hitting it off the practice ground at an Open Championship and making errors, and then amazing come backs,” said Paul Casey, a reference to Spieth’s historic scrambling victory last month at Royal Birkdale. “Jordan's got something very special. What he did at the Open Championship was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, after the start. He has something.”
Casey will begin the final round in a large group at 7 under that includes Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm and Matt Kuchar; with Johnson at 9 under thanks to a closing birdie that helped narrow the gap on Speith.
That’s not exactly a group that lacks either experience nor firepower, nor are they the type of players who shrink from a challenge, but given Spieth’s track record this season, having won The Open and Travelers Championship in dramatic fashion, it should be no surprise that they would gauge their title chances with a dollop of realism.
“You're going to have to ask for some help from the guy at the top who doesn’t normally give much help,” said Reed, a likely partner of Spieth’s in a few weeks at the Presidents Cup. “If he goes out and shoots even par and gets to 12 under, that means a lot of us are going to have to shoot 4 or 5 under just to catch him.”
Spieth’s track record is rather clear on this front. He’s 5-for-5 with a 54-hole lead of two shots or more in his career, and he’s converted nine of his last 10 54-hole leads.
Although there have been some high-profile stumbles this season, he’s always seemed to emerge unscathed.
At the Travelers Championship in June, he began the final round a stroke clear of the field and stumbled to a closing 70 only to beat Daniel Berger in a dramatic playoff; and at The Open he turned a three-stroke 54-hole lead into a deficit late on the back nine only to play his last five holes in 5 under and win his third major.
While those victories were memorable, Spieth admitted he would much rather enjoy a Sunday like the one he had in February when he began the final lap six clear of the field at Pebble Beach and cruised home to a 70 for a four-stroke victory.
“I think that's what anyone would prefer. I don't expect it, though,” Spieth said. “I've got DJ within three and Rahm, Paul Casey, some guys who have been playing extremely well this whole year. So you expect them to shoot 4 or 5 under rounds; and therefore, I need to go out and do what we've been doing.”
Although the Pebble Beach scenario would be ideal, he’ll take a victory any way he can get it. Just don’t expect him to have the same impact on the field as Woods did in his prime, when his name atop a leaderboard was worth a stroke a side.
“I imagine it's not like guys that were chasing Tiger where you almost felt hopeless,” Spieth said. “I've shown that, you know, things can get a little off and have to get back on track.”
Things can happen quickly when players are this talented, the rough is this thick and the stakes this high, but those who wish to make Sunday something other than a stroll for Spieth will have to make an early move if they don’t want this tournament to be over in, well, a New York minute.