SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The pursuit of the Greatest Major Season Ever isn’t supposed to be easy.
“There’s a reason I have a receding hairline,” Jordan Spieth said, “and it's because of that kind of pressure building up and that kind of stress. As much of a thrill as it is, it can wear you down.”
He emptied the tank Sunday at Whistling Straits.
With one final chance to stamp his major season as the best of all time, Spieth embraced the moment and put on a memorable show at this PGA Championship – crouching and kneeling, begging and pleading, spinning and marching, swiping and fist-pumping, barking and cheering.
It just wasn’t enough.
Spotting one of the hottest players in the world a two-shot lead, Spieth could only watch in awe as Jason Day buried five years of frustration with a near-flawless 67 to bully his way into the major winner’s circle.
“By far the best loss I’ve ever had,” Spieth said.
Spieth lost to the lowest score ever shot in a major, 20-under 268. His own 17-under total is the best score in a major (relation to par) by a non-winner or playoff participant.
Big picture, Spieth's 54-under par cumulative score in the majors is the best all time, eclipsing by one Tiger Woods’ epic 2000 season. His 1,090 strokes in the majors are the fewest ever, five less than Woods' gold standard. And he is the third player since 1960 to finish in the top-4 in all four majors in a season.
Historic by any measure.
But it wasn't until after the round that Spieth learned of the greatest consolation prize of all: His solo second was enough to overtake Rory McIlroy and ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Ranking, one of his lifelong goals.
"That will never be taken away from me now," he said.
Neither will one of the two best major seasons of the modern era.
This week there was considerable debate on where a three-major haul by Spieth would rank in the pantheon of all-time great seasons.
It’s all a moot point now, of course, because Spieth fell short of earning the hat trick, and thus his major season will be slotted behind Woods in 2000 and Ben Hogan in 1953. But the conversation was interesting, and it served as a reminder of how close the 22-year-old came to reshaping our perception of major greatness.
So while it’s easy to mourn what could have been, it’s worth celebrating one of the most impressive stretches of golf we’ve ever seen.
There was the runaway, record-breaking victory at the Masters.
There was the taut finish at the U.S. Open, where Spieth was fortunate not only to avoid a loss, but also a playoff, after Dustin Johnson’s three-putt from 12 feet.
And then there was the gut-wrenching conclusion to the Open Championship, where Spieth had a tie for the lead after 70 holes and kicked away a chance to win. No one in the modern era – not Palmer, not Nicklaus, not Woods – has come closer to winning the third leg of the Grand Slam.
All told, Spieth came within four measly shots of the single-season Slam. Only Nicklaus in 1975 (three) was closer.
“You only get four (majors) a year,” Spieth said, “and to have an opportunity to win all of them is so cool.”
Thing is, Spieth could very easily have mailed it in after St. Andrews. He could have showed up at the PGA, punched the clock, recorded another top 10 and been content with his two-major campaign. But his focus shifted to the winning this major, to making the most of this glorious year, the moment his last gasp from the Valley of Sin veered left of the cup. When he returned home to Dallas, he took only two days off and got back to work with swing coach Cameron McCormick. After a rusty start at Firestone, he closed with 66 and back-doored a top 10.
“In our conversations where he confides in me, there was no letdown at all,” McCormick said. “Of course he would have loved to get into the playoff and win that tournament. That’s obvious. But there’s still a lot to play for.”
Here he smiled.
“Jordan is also very good at revising goals once he checks off a box, and he’s set some further goals for the rest of the season.”
The PGA was next on Spieth's list, and with a victory he could have become the first player to sweep all three American majors in the same season.
His bid got off to a slow start, but a 71 in tough conditions kept him in touch with the leaders. No surprise there – he never trailed by more than five strokes after any major round this season. After his putter heated up, Spieth soared into contention with rounds of 67-65 and stirred hopes of even more history. With a back-nine 30 Saturday, he earned a spot in another final group, trailing the star-crossed Day by two.
No player has put himself in position to break through more often recently than Day, but the Aussie showed the kind of audacity Sunday that had been lacking in his other close calls. Wailing away on his driver, he birdied four of his first seven holes to create some separation.
The turning point in the final round came on No. 11, a reachable par 5 of 555 yards. Day belted a drive that practically waved at Spieth’s ball on the way by, bounded down the hill and settled 382 yards away. Walking up to their tee shots, Spieth whirled around and yelled, “Holy s---! You’ve gotta be kidding me!”
Day smiled and flexed his bicep.
A few moments later, he launched a wedge onto the green for an easy birdie, and when Spieth’s weak attempt from 6 feet peeled away at the cup, Day had regained his four-shot advantage.
“It was a stripe show,” Spieth said. “It was really a clinic to watch.”
Day got up and down out from the sand on 12. He stuffed an approach out of a deep fairway bunker to 10 feet on 14, then poured in the birdie putt. And after he gave back a shot on 15, he ripped a 4-iron to 20 feet on the par-5 16th to set up a stress-free birdie.
“Each time he stood and took it back, I had hope,” Spieth said. “And each time after it came off the face, the hope was lost.”
Spieth tried everything. He talked to his ball. Listened to pep talks from caddie Michael Greller. Made a few of the best up-and-downs of his life. Tried to will his ball into the cup.
“To be honest,” Day said, “the kid just doesn’t go away.”
But nothing worked, not this time.
Spieth’s goal at the start of the day was to shoot 68. That’s exactly what he signed for – and lost by three.
Ever gracious in defeat, Spieth unabashedly praised his fellow competitor down the stretch. When Day made an unlikely birdie on 14, Spieth waited for him by the next tee and said, “I mean, wow, that’s impressive right there.” When Day nestled his long lag putt on 17 to within tap-in range, Spieth locked eyes and gave him a thumbs up. And when it was all over, when Day sobbed in his caddie’s arms and his young family spilled out onto the green, Spieth stood and applauded.
Later, while waiting in the scoring trailer, Spieth looked at Day and told him, “There was nothing I could do.”
That helps explain why a legitimate run at the single-season Grand Slam only comes around every decade or two. It requires exquisite golf, yes, but also mental toughness, good fortune and timing. So much has to align, and in the end Spieth was four shots from perfection, from the Greatest Major Season Ever.
“I’m tired right now,” he said. “I left it all out there.”