ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Playing his first Open Championship with four holes to go on Day 2 in 2013 fresh-faced Jordan Spieth found himself tied for the lead at 3 under par.
“I remember almost thinking like that was too big for me at the time, in a way,” he recalled on Wednesday at St. Andrews.
He would play his final four holes that day in 4 over par and finish the weekend with rounds of 76-75 to tie for 44th place, exposing a rare, albeit entirely understandable, vulnerability to the moment.
Now just imagine how that flood of contextual uncertainty will compare to the 21-year-old’s date with destiny on Thursday at the Old Course as he looks to become the second player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season following breakthrough victories this year at Augusta National and Chambers Bay.
As Spieth has proven in his short career, he’s a quick study when it comes to high-pressure situations – like when he converted his disappointment over his loss in the 2014 Masters into his first major championship earlier this year at Augusta National – and with the world watching he seems to have struck an impressive balance between competitive indifference and situational awareness.
“I like to study the history of golf, and I think it's extremely special what this year has brought to our team and to have a chance to do what only one other person in the history of golf has done doesn't come around very often,” he allowed.
“But by the time I start on Thursday, it won't be in my head. It'll be about how can I bring this Open Championship down to just another event, get out there and try and get myself into contention.”
It’s another example of how far Spieth has come in just two short years since Muirfield and at least partially explains why, in the absence of world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, he’s the clear favorite this week.
As looking glass moments go, last week’s John Deere Classic proved to be a compelling indication of how Spieth will handle the enormity of the moment this week.
Widely second-guessed for his decision to play last week in Silvis, Ill., considering what was on the line at the Open Championship, as well as his inexperience around the Home of Golf, Spieth answered by winning his fifth PGA Tour title in a playoff.
It was a subtle, and predictably respectful, counter-punch to all the critics.
“I don't think anybody is going to argue with a win, and that was what we set out to do last week, to feel the pressure,” he said. “The whole point was to try and feel pressure over the weekend and try and perform my best, and that's exactly what we did.”
Spieth did concede, however, that an extra few trips around the Old Course, as well as a few days to adjust to the time change, would have been beneficial, but if he’s proven himself adept at anything it is formulating – and then carrying out – a plan.
After landing in Scotland on Monday morning on the chartered flight from the John Deere Classic, Spieth played 18 holes, added 10 more on Tuesday and planned to brave a light rain on Wednesday for another 18 holes.
“I would have liked to see tougher conditions in practice rounds to get used to prevailing winds and wind switches. But that's part of the fun and the adjustment,” he smiled.
Spieth also allowed that despite his success and his status as just the sixth player to win the first two legs of the single-season Grand Slam, he doesn’t expect the field to buckle if he gets off to a good start. It’s a byproduct of his style of play, with greens in regulation and mid-ranging putting being his stock and trade as opposed to the bombing likes of McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.
“Jim Furyk said he has one of the best short games he’s ever seen,” said Ryan Palmer, who played a practice round with Spieth on Tuesday. “[He’s] 21, fearless, all the confidence in the world. Look at his stats and he’s No. 1 in almost every putting category.”
In theory, that kind of “small-ball” mentality shouldn’t make Spieth an undeniable force, particularly on a course that is billed as a bomber’s paradise.
But that’s the same company line held at Augusta National and Chambers Bay and we all know how that turned out. Spieth’s abilities have a tendency to eschew the status quo, an element that makes the enormity of this moment somehow less than the sum of its parts.
In 2013 the then-19 year old found the idea of hoisting the claret jug too big to consider, but there are always varying degrees of desire and pressure is always relative.
“I don't think of those other two majors as being in a row this year, I just think of them as tournaments that I've won that are of the same caliber,” he said. “I don't look at this as trying to win three in a row; I look at this as trying to win the Open Championship at a very special place.”
That it’s a very big moment filled with untold pressure is also obvious, just don’t expect him to spend much time thinking along those lines when his first tee shot goes in the air on Thursday.