When Jordan Spieth teed off on Sunday at Royal Birkdale last year he knew he led every player in the field except Matt Kuchar by a half dozen shots. He knew his experiences in similar situations would be crucial. He knew he was 18 holes away from moving within a PGA Championship of the career Grand Slam.
What he didn’t know was that the next few hours would be the most eventful of his young life, and arguably the most memorable major championship finish in a generation.
Things didn’t go well from the outset. He bogeyed the first, the third and the fourth holes to fall into a tie for the lead with Kuchar.
Those putts that had seemed so effortless for the first three days refused to drop. He became uncomfortable with his swing, and by the turn all the momentum he’d built over 54 holes was squarely in Kuchar’s corner.
It’s not often that one can so easily identify the precise moment when you’ve reached rock bottom, but for Spieth there might as well have been a street sign adjacent the 13th tee box – You’ve arrived.
“It was just a bad 2 ½ hours that I had out of that entire week,” Spieth explained in a recent interview with Golf Channel. “I hit the ball beautifully, was putting well, chipping well the whole week. I just had that 2 ½ hours and I was able to not let that be four bad hours.”
This is how Spieth remembers that wild final round at the 2017 Open Championship:
The Downward Spiral
When Spieth made the turn, his three-shot lead over Kuchar was gone and the two were tied. For historians, the final turn had a déjà vu feel to it, similar to how Spieth had come unglued during the final round at the 2016 Masters.
But if Spieth has a tendency to appear nervous or unsettled during these circumstances, the internal dialogue at Royal Birkdale was surprisingly upbeat.
“I actually felt a little sigh of relief after I lost the lead,” Spieth said. “Like it almost felt easier being the chaser, and that happened two or three different times during that final round, where I lost the lead and then felt better because of it.”
Before things got better, however, they’d get much, much worse.
When Spieth arrived at the 13th tee he was still tied with Kuchar at 8 under par, but with a light rain falling and the galleries becoming restless, his drive on the 503-yard par 4 sailed nearly 100 yards right of the fairway.
As his tee shot soared helplessly out of play, Spieth cradled his head in both hands. It was as if the claret jug itself had been sent tumbling down the massive dunes.
“When I got to the ball, I saw that it was going to be an unplayable,” Spieth recalled. “I couldn't advance it anywhere where I could then hit the green. So I started running through scenarios.”
With Kuchar waiting with his caddie in the middle of the 13th fairway, one of the most surreal episodes since Jean Van de Velde waded into the burn at Carnoustie in 1999 unfolded.
Spieth’s drive actually caromed off a spectator, down a dune, and into a clump of fescue. It would have been easy, natural even, for Spieth’s racing mind to make a quick decision.
But there was nothing quick about what transpired next.
“If I drop it within two club lengths, any direction no closer [to the hole], do I get a lie where I can advance it back to the fairway?” he said.
At one point, Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, offered an alternative.
“He goes, ‘Why don't we go back to the tee, you know, make six [double bogey] at worst, get a putt at five,’” Spieth said. “I'm like, ‘I don't know if you know this, but I really don't want to hit that tee shot again. It didn't exactly go very well the last time.’”
But a plan began to form. After asking a rules official if the driving range, which is right of the 13th fairway, was out of bounds, Spieth decided to take an unplayable lie between a collection of equipment trailers.
“I saw kind of a scenario where maybe I could get a drop into the trailers, then go over on the driving range,” said Spieth, who was given line-of-sight relief from the trailers. “I get a clear lie with more room to carry over the hills. I could actually get enough club on the ball to reach the green and maybe make a five, six at worst.”
All total, Spieth’s adventure right of the 13th fairway took more than 20 minutes – all while Kuchar waited – although it didn’t seem that long in the heat of the moment.
“I was annoyed at watching the coverage of it afterwards and how long it was taking, because in my mind I had so many different decisions and stuff going through my head,” Spieth said. “It didn't seem like it took that long until we were over where I was going to drop it. ... I was surprised at how long it actually took compared to what it felt like.”
It’s also worth noting that although those moments and motions seemed frantic to those watching, internally Spieth described an odd calmness.
“It was clarity of thought and concise, is what it felt like,” he said. “It looked the exact opposite, but I felt clear in the mind.”
The Defining Moment
As officials tried to clear the gallery so Spieth could hit, he asked Greller for an approximate yardage. It was the only time that there was even a hint of concern during the entire episode.
“I thought it was around 270 yards to the hole and Michael thought I was around 230 to 240 and the wind was off the left, might've been a touch of hurt at that angle,” Spieth said.
Spieth and Greller agreed on something closer to his caddie’s estimation, and Spieth hit his driving iron just short and right of the green. He chipped to 8 feet and calmly rolled in the putt for bogey to fall one stroke off the lead.
Some bogeys are better than others, and with a renewed zeal Spieth bounded to the par-3 14th hole and would nearly hole out his 6-iron tee shot and convert the birdie putt to retake a share of the lead.
“The shot on 14 was the best shot that I've probably ever hit in a major championship given the situation,” Spieth said.
In Spieth’s mind, his miraculous bogey at the 13th hole had created a new tournament and the momentum that had eluded him all day was back.
At the next hole, the par-5 15th, Spieth would retake the lead for good with a 50-footer for eagle that was punctuated when he had Greller retrieve the ball, a snapshot many believe was The Open’s defining moment. In retrospect, however, Spieth wasn’t exactly happy with his reaction.
“I felt like I had an opportunity to give a signature reaction and I didn't,” Spieth smiled.
“I mean ‘Go get that!’ was kind of signature but that was a long putt, it goes downhill, left to right, then it banks back up right to left. I could have started walking over putter raise, big uppercut. I mean I had all this time, I knew it was going in with 5 feet to go and all I thought about was not even smiling, but instead Michael will pick that up out of the hole. I was disappointed in myself.”
Spieth would play his last five holes in 5 under par for a three-stroke victory over Kuchar. Although he rarely thinks in such terms, there was a measure of redemption in not just his win, but how he was able to triumph over adversity.
A year earlier at Augusta National, Spieth had let an opportunity slip through his hands when he played Nos. 10 through 12 in 6 over par.
During those feverish moments as he picked his way around Royal Birkdale’s 13th hole he allowed himself to pull on that ’16 Masters meltdown, but not for long.
“It brought in more negative thoughts than if that hadn't happened,” he conceded. “I was constantly questioned about that for a long time. It was annoying to me, but also I recognize that that was appropriate for those asking the questions, so it just wasn't a fun experience afterwards. I didn't want to go through it again, which was part of the fire to not let it happen again.”
And part of the satisfaction he now enjoys after winning the most unlikely of Open Championships.