ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Thank Dustin Johnson for some drama entering Monday’s matinee.
Had the South Florida slugger abused the Old Course’s front nine like he did on Thursday, when he pounded his was to a ridiculously-easy looking 5-under 31, the final round of the 144th Open Championship would have been relegated to a formality.
But DJ didn’t run away and hide the claret jug, playing the benign links in 3 over par. And after one of the most unforgiving days in recent major memory, the field largely dismantled the softer side of the Old Course.
All total, 63 players posted under par scores on Sunday. From unplayable to unprotected in less than 24 hours.
Only at St. Andrews.
The assault started with Marc Leishman, who rounded the ancient turf in 64 strokes to move from a tie for 50th and into contention at 9 under; followed by two-time Open winner Padraig Harrington, who posted a flawless 65; and an amateur named Paul Dunne, who took the lead with a birdie on No. 10 on his way to a 66 and a spot in Monday’s final pairing.
“This is not a golf course that the leaders tend to come back on, so you really do have to be somewhat there or thereabouts going into [the final round],” Harrington said.
Of course, Harrington made those comments before Johnson imploded with bogeys at his three closing holes and a traffic jam ensued at the corner of Golf Place and Grannie Clark’s Wynd.
When the birdies finally stopped falling there were 11 players within three strokes of the lead held by the threesome of Louis Oosthuizen, the champion golfer the last time the Open was played at the Home of Golf, Jason Day and Dunne.
“You can’t count the guys behind us out,” figured Day, who will set out in the final round in contention for the second consecutive major. “It’s just too bunched.”
Perhaps, but there will be one name from the pack that is sure to draw an inordinate amount of attention on Monday.
Jordan Spieth, looking to become just the second player to ever win the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season, played a pedestrian opening loop and appeared bound for a similar meltdown to the one Johnson suffered after he used his putter three times at the ninth to drop a shot. He was then informed by a rules official to step it up, which only added to his frustration.
“Walking off of [No.] 9 green was as frustrated as I've been in a tournament other than off of 14 yesterday morning,” admitted Spieth. “I don't normally ever display frustration. I did both times. I couldn't hold it in. I think I punched my golf bag. I didn't want to hit [caddie Michael Greller], so I figured I'd hit my golf bag.”
And then he took a metaphorical swing at the field.
The would-be winner of the first three legs of the single-season Grand Slam answered with birdies at Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 15 to move to 11 under par and just a stroke off the lead.
His play brings into sharp focus a long-held axiom that without wind the Old Course is vulnerable to all sorts of scoring accomplishments – more than once on Sunday the whispers of a possible 62 could be heard across St. Andrews – and the Open becomes a putting contest.
At least the nod would go to Spieth after he found a fix for a balky putting stroke that led to 37 putts in a second round that stretched to two days when play was delayed early Friday by torrential rain and Saturday by winds that whipped to 40 mph.
Spieth adjusted midway through his round on Sunday in time to convert birdie putts of 8 feet (Nos. 1 and 7), 12 feet (No. 10), 15 feet (No. 12) and 5 feet (No. 15).
“I just had been aligned a little left. Every putt was missing just a little off the left side of the hole, so I just tried to adjust, and by the time we got to [Nos.] 10, 11, I had made the adjustment,” said Spieth, who closed with a 66. “To shoot 4 under with no bogeys on the back was a great comeback from Friday, Saturday and the front nine today.”
On Monday he will be paired with Day, who held a share of the lead with Spieth through three rounds at last month’s U.S. Open before fading into a tie for ninth as he battled the effects of benign positional vertigo.
The Australian also got off to a slow start relative to the rest of the field on super Sunday, but closed with a 33 for a share of the lead in his ongoing quest to crack the major ceiling.
“Over the last few years I've been in contention at major championships, I've learnt the biggest thing for me is just to understand that tomorrow is going to be a tough round,” Day said.
“There's going to be a lot of wind, there's going to be a lot of rain, there's going to be a lot of guys that are going to shoot low scores. I just need to really stay patient and let the birdies come.”
Oosthuizen, who finished runner-up at the U.S. Open and was also pacing the field after three rounds when he won the 2010 St. Andrews Open, seems certain to add to Monday’s finale as well, while Dunne, despite his solid play this week, would appear to be a refreshing long shot considering that Bobby Jones was the last amateur to win the Open, in 1930.
Yet for all the compelling possibilities on a busy leaderboard it is Spieth – who at 21-years-old is perched on a historic pinnacle – who will begin the closing loop with the most attention.
“He's a heavy favorite tomorrow, just being one shot back. Everyone knows it,” Day said.
Unlike the alternative, however, he’s not the only favorite.
After Saturday’s tempest, Mother Nature and the Old Course yielded and the field was thankful. But most of all, they were thankful that Johnson didn’t turn the final round into a foregone conclusion.