SOUTHPORT, England – Phil Mickelson knew it the moment his birdie putt fell into the hole to win the 2013 Open at Muirfield, just as Rory McIlroy was well aware of the historical path that had opened up to him when he won at Royal Liverpool a year later.
Only five men have won the career Grand Slam, the most exclusive of golf’s clubs reserved for the type of legacy that requires only a first name – Jack, Tiger, Gary, Gene and Ben.
Like Mickelson and McIlroy before him, Jordan Spieth didn’t shy away from the most intense of expectations when he walked off Royal Birkdale on Sunday after the most eventful of days.
He’d just endured a 3-over-through-four-holes start and a surreal episode at the 13th hole that included two drops, two rules officials and far too much drama, but Spieth had no problem breaking the code and letting his mind drift to next month’s PGA Championship and the historic possibilities.
Bring it on.
“It's a life goal of mine. It's a career goal,” he said. “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 that learning curve could be expedited next month at Quail Hollow, where Spieth will arrive with a chance to become the youngest to complete the career round-tripper, younger than Nicklaus, younger than Woods. Historic.
At 23 - he turns 24 on Thursday - Spieth would seem to be a lock to join the club eventually, but the student of golf is well aware there are no guarantees.
Mickelson and McIlroy are 0-fer in their attempts to complete the career slam, with Rory needing a Masters victory and Lefty still searching for that elusive U.S. Open title.
Go deeper into the history books and the road ahead, however long it may be, loses a little more of its certainty. No player has ever completed the career slam with a PGA victory, with the late Arnold Palmer the most glaring example of those who tried and failed.
When Palmer won the 1961 Open Championship only the Wanamaker Trophy needed to be added to his collection, and yet in 34 attempts from ’61 until he retired the King was unable to get over the PGA hurdle. He finished runner-up at the PGA three times after ’61 and his career is by all accounts among the top three of all time, but that fourth major proved to be inexplicably elusive.
“I don't think it's inevitable, no,” said Zach Johnson, who was waiting for Spieth when he completed his round on Sunday at Royal Birkdale. “That being said, he's got a better chance than most. Rory has the best chance or Phil. But those two obviously have the best chance. Rory probably has the best chance, if you go on odds and age. But I put nothing past Phil.”
Mickelson’s chances at the U.S. Open appear to be nearing an end. He skipped this year’s championship to attend his daughter’s high school graduation and at 47 years old he doesn’t exactly have time on his side, although the Thrill has defied convention his entire career.
At 28, McIlroy certainly isn’t overly concerned that he won’t be able to add a green jacket to his Grand Slam trophy case. He’s always played Augusta National well, having finished in the top 10 the last three years in his pursuit of the career slam.
But all things considered, it might be Spieth who has the best chance to crack the major ceiling first. In four starts at the PGA, Spieth is 2-for-4 in cuts made and finished runner-up in 2015 to Jason Day, and as his record proves he has the ability to perform on a variety of golf courses – from Augusta National to Chambers Bay to Royal Birkdale.
The next few years will be crucial. Pressure has a way of building in direct relation to missed opportunities.
When Ernie Els won the 2002 Open Championship his mind immediately drifted to winning the career slam. He’d already won the U.S. Open, twice, and had played well at Augusta National. With each near miss, however, things became more difficult.
“He could go really big. He can go up to the 14 mark, up there in majors. When you get on a roll like that guys kind of start knowing that you know how to win,” Els said on Sunday when asked about Spieth’s career slam chances. “You've seen some careers where, I mean myself in '95 I had a three-shot lead going to the [final round of the] PGA, couldn't get it done. '96 I missed out on another very narrow loss. And I kind of stalled. I only got four [majors]. But if you get the momentum going the other way, you can go win a boatload.”
Although his place in golf history, not to mention the World Golf Hall of Fame, appears written in stone and silver at this point, Spieth’s legacy is now directly tied to his ability to do what Palmer and Watson couldn’t – win a PGA Championship.
The good news is he won’t have long to wait before he gets his first chance.