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Spieth kept Grand Slam quest alive to very end

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – A Grand Slam quest that spanned 99 days unraveled in three minutes Monday.

It could have ended hours or days earlier – after the five three-putts in the wind-blown second round … or the four-putt in the final round … or the countless missed opportunities that caused brief fits of rage – but the ghost of Hogan teased Jordan Spieth until the very end, right down to his final full shot on the Old Course.

Cruel game.

Fifty-five years after Arnold Palmer arrived at St. Andrews hoping to capture the third leg of the Slam, only to come up one shot short, another hugely popular American superstar watched someone else hoist a claret jug that easily could have been his.

Tied for the lead on the 71st hole, Spieth pushed a 6-foot par putt and then hit a wayward drive that left him an awkward yardage to a dicey pin. The ensuing par left him at 14-under 274, one shot out of the three-man playoff, eventually won by Zach Johnson

No one has ever gotten closer to matching Ben Hogan's trifecta in 1953. 

“It won’t hurt too bad,” Spieth said, his hands stuffed into his blue pants pockets. “I made a lot of the right decisions down the stretch and certainly closed plenty of tournaments out, and this just wasn’t one of those. It’s hard to do that every single time. I won’t beat myself up too bad because I do understand that.”

It wasn’t just talk either – he waited around for more than an hour afterward just so he could hug Johnson and congratulate him on a bucket-list major.

“He’s a phenomenal talent,” Johnson would say later, “but he’s a better person than he is golfer.” 

The phrase Spieth has used repeatedly during both summer Opens is “free rolling.” He’s playing to win, of course, but the fact that he already has two majors in the bag this year freed him up to take a few extra chances.

“There’s really no downside,” he said here Sunday night. “If we have a chance to win and we don’t execute, then we’re going to be OK.”

That doesn’t mean this loss was easy to stomach.

Because after blowing away the field at Augusta and then watching Dustin Johnson crumble on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay, this time it was Spieth who let one get away.

The greatest irony? His magical short game – his greatest strength – was the part that let him down the most in his quest for a third major in a row.

Ranked first on Tour in three-putt avoidance, Spieth’s speed control was off all week, leading to a career-worst 37 putts in the second round (including five three-putts) and a ghastly four-putt on the eighth green Monday.

“I think my biggest advantage over anybody in the world is my first-putt proximity,” he said, “and it certainly cost me at least a couple of shots.”

Yet the most fearsome version of Spieth is when he has red ass – when he quickens his pace and he chats off caddie Michael Greller’s ear and he fidgets with the bottom button on his polo. He was so ticked Sunday that he took out his aggression on his golf bag.

“I couldn’t hold it in,” he said. “I wasn’t going to break a club or throw a club. I didn’t want to hit Michael, so I figured I’d hit my golf bag.”

He promptly birdied his next three holes, and four of his next six, to come home in 32 and sit just one off the lead heading into the final day.

Spieth opted for a less violent release in the final round, flinging his ball into the gorse after the four-putt double on 8, but it proved just as effective. Needing to rebound quickly, he rolled in a 20-footer and nipped a wedge to 6 feet on the next two holes to gain back those precious strokes.

Turning back into the wind at St. Andrews, he strung together five consecutive pars to stay in the hunt. Then came the 16th, where he poured in a 50-footer that was tracking all the way. Spieth raised his putter when the ball was 15 … 10 … 5 feet away, and then he punched the air, and the grandstand shook, and suddenly, at 15 under, tied for the lead, all of the mistakes were erased and it all felt possible again.

Did the thoughts of the claret jug, of matching Hogan, of eventually tying Jones, enter his mind then?

Because it had to.

Because it’s only human nature.

“Not really,” Spieth said. “No.”

The task ahead was too difficult to consider any of the historical implications.

After hitting a drive down an adjacent fairway, he studied his long approach into the most famous par 4 in the world, the brutally difficult Road Hole that had surrendered just a single birdie Sunday, and only nine all week.

His goal was to make 4, somehow, and he had 240 yards to the flag, into a cold wind and pesky mist. “I don’t think I could hit driver that far,” he said, and so he opted for a 4-iron that he knuckled into the first cut of the right rough, the only reasonable angle into the treacherous final-round hole location.

His pitch landed softly on the green, checked near the cup and rolled out about 6 feet. He has made 77 percent of his putts from that range this season, one of the most proficient on Tour, but on this rare occasion he missed.

He claimed it wasn’t because of the pressure.

“I just didn’t hit a great putt there,” he said, nor did he hit a great drive three minutes later, when it all came undone.

Needing birdie, nothing less, he was too quick in his transition and yanked his tee shot way left. He grimaced and extended his left arm, signaling his foul ball. He bent over, tapped his tee twice with his driver and swiped at the soggy turf.

“Who would have thought a drive on 18 was going to be what really hurt me at the end there?” he said later. “It’s kind of hard to not hit a good one on that hole.”

Fans in the grandstands applauded his entire walk up the fairway, a rock star closing out his set, and Spieth gave a single tip of his blue cap. The poorly positioned drive took lob wedge out of his hands, and he marched all the way up to the green, to the exact spot where he wanted his ball to land, just over the top of the ridge, because any slight miscue meant the difference between a short birdie putt to tie and a hit-and-hope from down below the green, the Costantino Rocca putt, in the Valley of Sin.

“Up and down for a playoff,” he told Greller.

A quick-triggered photographer snapped Spieth in his backswing, and he was forced to reset, a problem Hogan never had. His three-quarter shot landed atop the ridge, nearly perfect, but it had too much spin and rolled back down the slope. Slogging toward the green, he put his left hand over his head.

A man shouted from an old stone building.

“Come on, Spieth. We believe!”

He peered into his yardage book, consulted with Greller and stalked the putt from every angle. He gave his long birdie putt a run, and it looked good for a while, but it slid by the left edge. His bid for the Slam was over.

Spieth gave Greller a quick handshake, tousled his thinning hair, and congratulated and comforted fellow playing competitor Jason Day on an Open well played.

The fans in the 18th grandstand gave Spieth a standing ovation as he walked off the green, and the kid returned the favor, clapping and thanking them with a thumbs-up.

Afterward, Spieth met with the media and thoughtfully assessed how he played, what he could have done differently. Exiting the flash area, he spotted a young fan who had climbed onto his father’s shoulders and poked his head over the chain-link fence. They held out a piece of paper and asked for an autograph.

“Slam next year,” the man said.

Spieth smiled.