Spieth isn't flashy, but he's just what golf needs

By Joe PosnanskiJuly 21, 2015, 2:37 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Golf, like boxing and tennis and track and all other individual sports, relies on the power of its stars. It’s an inevitable thing, really.

In team sports like baseball or football, fandom builds from countless things. Geography. History. Team colors. A Dodgers fan, a Bears fan, a Spurs fan might be rooting for the team of her father or favorite teacher or the first team she ever saw in person or any other reason.

But in golf, like those other individual sports, a player must give you a reason to care. There are thousands of professional golfers around the world and all of them have honed their skills to the level of magic. When compared to our own meager games, all of them can crush long drives and hit precise iron shots and make the golf ball hop gently out of the sand. Follow any medium-level professional for 18 holes and you will see something remarkable.

The larger game of golf thrives when a few of them – and usually one in particular – stands out, thrills us, captivates us, angers us in ways that consistently leave us awed and surprised. Think Ali. Think Bolt. Think Serena. Think Tiger. It’s a rare thing.

Most athletes, even some of the most fantastic ones, just don't have that extra push, they just don’t quite enthrall us like that. We admire them, applaud them, even root for them. But they never quite grab us emotionally. We don’t quite love them. We don’t quite loathe them either. They leave us unmoved.

Sunday at St. Andrews, for just a few moments, Jordan Spieth once again pulled golf out of that pleasant monotony and made it riveting and chilling and fun. It’s amazing that it is Spieth playing this role. A year ago, if you had to pick the new Tiger Woods, the player who might step out of the moment and make golf big and colorful and cool, Spieth probably would have been about the 15th choice. Rory McIlroy was the one with everything then, and you had a long list of players (Dustin Johnson? Rickie Fowler? Jason Day? Louis Oosthuizen?) with silkier swings and longer drives and more obvious gifts.

It’s funny, even now – even as Spieth finishes a break or two away from becoming the first man since Ben Hogan to win the first three legs of golf’s Grand Slam – people struggle to put into words just what it is that makes Spieth good. He doesn’t hit it that far. He doesn’t hit it that high. He doesn’t hit it that close. He’s not a machine of consistency. You will hear even enlightened experts talk about Spieth’s lack of weapons.

The trouble is that the mind tends to deconstruct things because we can’t quite see the whole mosaic. We tend to think of great players in terms of the numerous skills they possess. How far does he drive it? How good are his long irons? How well does he putt it? How is his chipping game? Rank each of these things on a 10-point scale and add them up.

This is not golf. Golf is about putting the ball in the hole in the fewest shots, and in this Jordan Spieth’s genius is mesmerizing. His golf is an orchestra; the violins and cellos and flutes and drums blend together. There are no soloists.

At Augusta, he smashed the record for most birdies made. At the U.S. Open, he shot the lowest score on a quirky course with chewed up greens that left the others grumbling. Heck, a week before the Open Championship, against the unrequested advice of millions, he showed up at the John Deere Classic in Illinois to get the feeling of being in contention hitting shots under pressure.

The first two days, his choice seemed a mistake; he was middle of the pack. He resolved the issue by shooting 61 on Saturday and then winning a playoff on Sunday. Spieth then hopped on a plane with some of the other players, including eventual Open champion Zach Johnson, and he headed for the Old Course at St. Andrews.

The Open Championship this year was a bumpy and disjointed ride. Scottish golf is framed by the weather; none of the famous links golf courses here can defend themselves when the wind is down and the sky is clear. This is particularly true of the Old Course, which on clear days can become a pitch-and-putt even for weekend golfers. So, bad weather is normally welcome by tournament officials. The trouble this year was that the weather was too bad. Biblical rains poured on Friday morning, flooding the Old Course and causing a three and a half hour delay. This forced a good chunk of the field, including Spieth, to finish their second round on Saturday.

And on Saturday the winds blew. Boy did the winds blow. Spieth went out early Saturday when the wind was howling so loudly that golf balls would roll on their own, like unleashed puppies. The Royal and Ancient, who make such decisions, soon realized they had made a ghastly mistake. The course was unplayable. But in the interim, Spieth had a birdie putt blown backward from the hole. As it turned out, that was a pretty critical shot lost.

Well, he finished one shot back so every shot lost would turn out to be critical and, weather aside, Spieth would say he had only himself to blame. If he does have one skill that stands out in his golfing orchestra it might be his putting touch. But in the second round alone, he three-putted five times. In the third round, he three-putted again.

This should have been too much to overcome, but Spieth got hot on the back nine of his third round and played well to start the fourth. He was still just a shot off the lead when he went to the normally uneventful par-3 8th. He hit a loose tee shot that left him 40 yards right of the flag. He decided to putt the ball.

The greatest players of past generations – Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, those guys – marvel constantly at Spieth’s decision-making. He is still only 21 and he has not played professional golf for very long, but he invariably makes the right choices when in contention. This is no easy thing. The right choice in golf often seems irrational. Sometimes you have to hit the ball away from the flag. Sometimes you have to play for a bogey. Even Nicklaus, the greatest thinker in the game’s history, needed some time to learn how to play well under pressure. Let’s face it, a typical 21-year-old, no matter how talented, will inevitably play too aggressively; it is astounding that Spieth has resisted such tendencies all year.

On the eighth hole, he could not resist. The smart play, as he later acknowledged, would have been to play conservatively, leaving himself a tough 6- or 8- or even 10-foot uphill putt for par. Instead, Spieth cracked the putt so hard, it looked like something you might see on a putt-putt course. No windmill could stop it. The ball rolled off the green and a shaken Spieth four-putted the hole and made double-bogey.

This should have finished him for sure. He dropped four behind the leader and the weather was gradually worsening. Well, it was a nice run. No one since Woods himself had won the first two majors of the year. Reporters scrambled to learn more about Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman and others who still had a chance.

Only this kid seems utterly incapable of giving up on himself – yet another instrument in his golfing orchestra. He birdied the next hole, then birdied the 10th to get both of his lost strokes back and put himself just a shot off the lead. He knew that he needed at least one more birdie to put himself in position to win the golf tournament, and watching him grind for that birdie was incredible. He almost chipped in for birdie. Another birdie putt drifted an inch left. He came to the brutal 16th hole, a hole only one person had birdied in the previous couple of hours, and he faced a roller-coaster 50-foot putt. To ask even Jordan Spieth to make that putt under those conditions seemed unfair. He calmly studied the putt from both sides, set up, and knocked it in.

Cheers. Roars. Goosebumps. It was impossible. Spieth was tied for the lead. St. Andrews, in that moment, was a rainy blur of joy and astonishment. The Grand Slam was in play.

The moment only lasted for, well, a moment. But we should bask in that moment for longer. When Arnold Palmer came along more than a half century ago, golf was seen as elitist, a country club thing, bland and uninteresting television. Then this Hollywood star comes along, smoking a cigarette, slashing at the ball with abandon, coming back from impossible deficits while fans – people you knew, factory workers, butchers, cops, nurses – chased after him cheering their heads off.

When Tiger Woods came along, golf had grown stale and invariable. Everyone swung the club the same. Everyone dressed the same. Everyone in the crowd looked the same. The unofficial “best golfer in the world” title changed hands so often that there really was no king, no one to measure greatness against.

Then, here was Tiger Woods, a black man in a white sport, driving the ball for miles and hitting impossible shots like they were nothing and pumping his fist and shouting into the air, “Yeah!” And suddenly a golfer – not a baseball player or a football player or fighter – was the coolest athlete in the world.

They were both at St. Andrews this week for only a short while, Palmer to hit a few shots in an exhibition of champions and Woods to hit only a few more shots in two dismal rounds. The endless Woods debate – will he ever again even be a shadow of himself? – loses steam as one side of the argument grows harder and harder to make. But even if he miraculously does come back, golf still needs the next star, the one who will make the sport bigger than life.

Can it be Jordan Spieth? Can it really be a clean-cut and friendly young man from Texas who says is modest and confident and whose game doesn’t make you go wow at any point until the ball actually drops in the cup? In that moment after the putt at 16, when he gripped St. Andrews, I realized that the answer is a resounding yes. Spieth is not like Arnie or Tiger. He’s something else, something you are seeing all over sports now: The likeable superstar. He is like Steph Curry. He is like Alex Morgan. He is like Andrew Luck. You don’t just want them to win, you want to hang out with them. A hundred times already I’ve been asked: Is Jordan Spieth as nice as he seems? There was a time when stars had to be larger than life. Maybe it’s changing. People don’t just love Jordan Spieth; they wish he was their brother-in-law.

Anyway, the moment did pass and the anticlimactic ending happened. Spieth bogeyed 17 like just about everyone else in the field. He gave himself a chance to make par (which was like making birdie) but he over-read his putt. He then needed birdie on the 18th and he hit his worst drive of the day, way left, leaving him an uncomfortable angle and distance. So many people were taking his photo when he tried to hit his second shot that he had to back off. Then he made the sort of mistake he rarely makes; he hit his approach a little short and the ball spun off the green and rolled into the Valley of Sin. The groans at St. Andrews were overwhelming and the final word. His valiant birdie effort skirted just by the hole, but Spieth knew the moment he hit it that it would not go in.

Zach Johnson won the Open Championship in a playoff. He’s one of those great athletes who just does not move the needle, but there are few players in the game who are as athletically admirable. He gets everything out of his game. He truly does have limited weapons, and he must go out there week after week and win on the power of his short-irons and masterful putting. He had made a spectacular birdie putt on the 18th just to get into the playoff, and then he made two more birdies in the four-hole playoff. He won a St. Andrews Open Championship to pair with his Masters green jacket, a Hall of Fame combination.

And when he finished, who was there waiting to hug him in congratulations? Right. Jordan Spieth. Because Jordan Spieth.

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

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Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

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McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.