SOUTHPORT, England – It couldn’t happen, shouldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen.
Not this soon.
And so, in the midst of another major collapse, and with his reputation as a shutdown closer on the line, Jordan Spieth took 29 minutes to play the 13th hole Sunday at Royal Birkdale.
It was worth every surreal second.
In what became one of the most bizarre, gutsy and exhilarating stretches in major-championship history, Spieth made an improbable bogey from the driving range, then ripped off three birdies and an eagle late to snatch the claret jug from Matt Kuchar and capture the 146th Open Championship.
“Today took as much out of me as any day I’ve ever played,” Spieth said afterward.
Spieth has long resisted historical comparisons, but he’s also a student of the game and is acutely aware of where his march on history now stands. Four days shy of his 24th birthday, he became the second-youngest player in the modern era to win three majors, behind Jack Nicklaus and ahead of Tiger Woods. Spieth can complete the career Grand Slam next month at Quail Hollow.
“To be in that company,” he said, “no doubt, is absolutely incredible.”
His epic comeback took on an even greater significance given his recent history.
Four-hundred-seventy days ago, halfway around the world, Spieth authored one of the biggest collapses in golf history, coughing up a five-shot lead with nine holes to play in the 2016 Masters. The past 15 months have been spent defending, rationalizing and then ultimately accepting the worst day of his professional life, and for a while Sunday it appeared as though there would be another meltdown to sort through.
That seemed inconceivable at the start of the day.
Spieth had looked unflappable for three rounds, keeping calm and pouring in putts through wind gusts and rain squalls, taking another lead into the final round of a major.
If the memories of the Masters were fresh, he betrayed no apprehension Saturday night. He thoughtfully answered a reporter’s question – “It was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward” – and then retired to his rental house, which he shared with fellow frat brothers Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Justin Thomas. They played gin and snooker deep into the night, making no mention of the day ahead. “It was pretty chill,” Walker said.
As is his routine on major Sundays, Spieth arrived at Birkdale 2 ½ hours before his tee time. With his swing coach Cameron McCormick squatting behind him, Spieth stroked 5-footers on an alignment track for a half-hour and then headed in for lunch, a foam roller popping out of the neon green backpack slung over his shoulder.
It wasn’t long before he was tied up in knots.
Staked to a three-shot lead, Spieth’s advantage disappeared by the time he walked off the fourth green. Cue the Augusta flashbacks.
“All of a sudden it creeps in your head,” he said. “I was so confident, and then all of a sudden, the wheels come off everything. So how do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end?”
Now tied, and sensing his boss needed to refocus, Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, stopped him on the seventh tee and delivered a pep talk.
“Do you remember that group you were with in Cabo?” Greller asked, referring to Spieth’s July Fourth vacation, when he headed south of the border with Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and other A-list celebrities. “You belong in that group. 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.”
It sure didn't seem like it on the 13th hole.
Playing in a light rain, Spieth’s drive sailed about a hundred yards right, over a sand dune, off the noggin of a spectator, and into an unplayable lie. Back on the tee, his reaction was eerily similar to when he rinsed the two shots on the 12th hole at Augusta: Hands on his head. Mouth agape. Eyes filled with anguish.
“Oh boy,” Spieth said. “This could be 6.”
Sorting through his options, he headed to the range, where a stunned Haotong Li was warming up, preparing for a potential playoff.
Twirling a 3-wood in his hand, weaving between the Titleist and Callaway trailers, creating a van de Veldian spectacle, Spieth was granted line-of-sight relief from the trucks as Greller, lugging a 40-pound bag, trudged back up the dunes to offer a reference point.
“I certainly didn’t have any numbers from the right side of the range,” Greller said, smirking.
Indeed, Spieth was so far off-line, not even the Pythagorean theorem could have helped. He guessed he had 270 yards to the front and wanted to hit 3-wood; Greller insisted it was closer to 230 yards and suggested 3-iron. As Kuchar waited patiently during the 22-minute ordeal, Spieth, with 3-iron in hand, put his ball back in play, then perfectly nipped his pitch shot from a tight, downhill lie and rolled in the 8-footer for an all-world bogey.
Spieth fell one behind but didn't panic. “That’s a momentum shift right there,” Greller said.
And it shifted the outcome of The Open.
What followed was a 6-iron laser on 14 for birdie.
A 50-foot eagle on 15, as he pointed at the cup and told Greller to “go get that.”
A 30-footer for birdie on 16.
And then, finally, an 8-footer on 17, an instantly legendary stretch that gave him a final-round 69 and a three-shot victory at 12-under 268.
“That’s the stuff legends are made of,” McCormick said. “When you’re pushed back to the wall and you’re in a corner and you keep punching … that just shows his tenacity and resilience and the heart that he has.”
By the time Kuchar walked off the 18th green, his perma-smile was gone, his eyes were glazed over, and his young son was in tears.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Kuchar, who shot 69. “It’s crushing. It hurts.”
Yet for Spieth, it’s a reputation-saving turnaround. Even though he’d closed out eight of his past nine 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour, the one occasion he didn’t still haunted him.
“He’s heard a lot since the 2016 Masters,” Greller said, turning emotional, “and I’m sure there was somewhere in there some doubts crept in. It was just cool to see him with his back against the wall more than maybe even 12 at Augusta and see what he did. It just shows his character and his grit.”
Personally, Greller thought the 2015 Open was more disappointing than the Masters. Two years ago, on the verge of capturing the first three legs of the Grand Slam, Spieth had bogeyed the 71st hole at St. Andrews and missed the playoff by a shot. Instead of sulking, though, he waited behind the final green to congratulate Zach Johnson, then rode home on the charter flight with him, guzzling wine, cheap beer and champagne out of the claret jug, unafraid of any Open jinx.
Now, somehow, Spieth has a claret jug of his own, and another flight to catch. After the past 15 months, after a comeback for the ages, the bubbly will taste even sweeter.