SOUTHPORT, England – There was a brief moment of suspense Saturday, a few seconds when Jordan Spieth’s shot into the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale hung up in the cool, damp air and drifted right, destined for the bunker. Matt Kuchar had just cut into his deficit, again, and now he seemed on the verge of seizing the momentum after his approach skirted past the cup and rolled 10 feet away.
Spieth looked disgusted with his second shot. He started walking after it, head down, and was genuinely surprised to hear the cheers of the capacity crowd. His ball had somehow crept over the bunker and settled atop a little knob, 20 feet from the cup.
“I was happily shocked,” he said.
It was the kind of little break that Spieth has gotten all week, but the reason why he’s in control of this 146th Open Championship, the reason why he’s just 18 holes away from capturing the third leg of the career Grand Slam, is that he has capitalized. Eyeing up his birdie putt, there was little doubt about the outcome.
“That one just felt good looking at it,” he said. “With a few feet to go, it was going to go in. It was a good feeling.”
Even better was what happened next. Kuchar’s putt from close range caught the left edge of the cup and stayed out, and just like that Spieth had turned what looked like a one-shot lead into a three-shot advantage on Kuchar and a six-shot cushion on the rest of the field.
“I’m extremely pleased,” said Spieth, who shot 65 and is at 11-under 199. “I couldn’t ask for much more.”
And so here comes the moment Spieth and every golf fan has been waiting for ever since he rinsed two shots in Rae’s Creek 15 months ago. It’s another lead at another major, another opportunity to show that scar tissue can heal, another chance to prove that he won’t be defined by the worst nine holes of his career.
Eight of the last nine occasions that Spieth has held the lead on the PGA Tour, he has gone on to win. The lone exception, of course, was the final round of the 2016 Masters, when he took a five-shot lead at the turn and wound up three shots behind. The collapse dogged him all year, and he understandably grew irritated at the constant reminders. That he didn’t factor in a major the rest of ’16, and then squandered another chance at a green jacket this April, only fueled the talk that part of his mystique had been lost.
On Saturday, though, when he was inevitably asked about Augusta, he offered one of his most thoughtful answers to date on the topic.
“I’m in a position where it can be very advantageous, just everything I’ve gone through – the good, the bad, and everything in the middle,” he said. “I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling on one.
“So it was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward. If I don’t win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that – it has to do with it was someone else’s day, and I didn’t play as well as I should have. And if I win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that, either. You’re learning, and it all goes into the mental process.”
Spieth has won four titles worldwide since the ’16 Masters, most recently in his last start at the Travelers Championship, where he won for the first time, he said, feeling uneasy with his putter. All of those experiences will prove beneficial on Sunday, as the 23-year-old attempts to become the second-youngest player in the modern era (behind only Jack Nicklaus) to capture three majors, but Sunday at The Open will be his biggest gut check yet.
Working in Spieth’s favor is that no one has been in this position more often over the past few years. He has held at least a share of the lead at a major 13 times since the beginning of 2015 – six more than any other player. All of that big-game experience is invaluable, especially compared to Kuchar, who at age 39 is playing in a Sunday final pairing at a major for the first time.
Spieth has grown comfortable in an uncomfortable setting.
“It’s a different feeling,” he said, “and one that’s harder to sleep with than the other way around because you feel like you’ve got to almost change the way you do things. You almost see the finish line, and you control your own destiny. Sometimes that can be a big thing on your mind, versus I need help and I’ll just go out there and try to play well. … But I wouldn’t rather be in any other position than where we’re at. We have an opportunity to have a really special day on this golf course tomorrow, and I’m excited about it.”
His position seemed precarious during the final hour of the third round.
Kuchar trailed by two shots for much of the day but finally pulled even on the 15th green. Spieth’s 60-footer for eagle had raced by the cup, leaving a tricky putt with the hole cut on a crown. “A scary one,” he said. But Spieth sank the putt and looked directly at caddie Michael Greller as he pumped his fist. His lead soon ballooned to three shots, after Kuchar made double bogey on 16.
Kuchar got up and down on 17 to trim Spieth’s lead to two, but he couldn’t answer the dagger on the last.
“That’s expected with Jordan,” Kuchar shrugged.
There went any Open suspense. It’s closing time for Spieth.