Spieth exorcises major demon, inches closer to history
July 23, 2017
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Jordan Spieth wins The Open
SOUTHPORT, England – Mental scars are the most difficult to erase. Despite his best efforts and despite previously winning two majors, Jordan Spieth never really purged the demons of that disastrous Sunday at the Masters 15 months ago.
Sure, his win in Texas a few weeks later helped. So did three more victories around the world, including his spectacular finish at the Travelers Championship last month. The 2015 FedExCup champ kept telling us not to worry, that the blown lead at Augusta National – five shots on the back nine – was behind him. It was a couple of bad swings on the 12th hole, nothing else.
We wanted to believe him, and why not? He kept winning.
But those weren’t majors, and in Spieth’s mind, winning one was the only way to completely get past the 2016 Masters. The only way to erase lingering doubts about his ability to close.
So here he was Sunday at The Open Championship. His three-shot lead to start the final round at Royal Birkdale had disappeared in 48 can-you-believe-this minutes. Three bogeys in his first four holes, and now he was tied with playing partner Matt Kuchar at 8 under.
The demons began to appear. Negative thoughts. Doubts. Self-destruction. Was it happening again?
“It creeps into your head,” Spieth said. “I was so confident and all of a sudden, the wheels have kind of come off everything. How do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end?
“It took a bogey to do so.”
Well, it took one of the most drama-filled bogeys in the 146-year history of this event, and one of the most amazing – and impressive – turnarounds you’ll ever see in golf, but yes, the demons are gone now. Jordan Spieth is back on track.
Say hello to the Champion Golfer of the Year. And say hello to the third leg of the career Grand Slam. Only Jack Nicklaus has gotten there faster than Spieth, who turns 24 years old on Thursday. His first opportunity to become the sixth golfer to complete the career Slam comes at next month's PGA Championship.
“He’s heard a lot since that ’16 Masters,” said Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, a vital component in Sunday’s theatrics. “I’m sure somewhere in there, some doubts crept in. He just said, you know what, I know how to do this. He’s done it twice before. Now three times. It was cool to see it, his back against the wall, maybe more than 12 at Augusta in ’16.
“To see what he did shows his character and his grit.”
It wasn’t easy. In fact, Spieth would say afterward that Sunday’s round “’took as much out of me as any day that I’ve ever played golf.”
Before the round, Spieth tried to keep positive thoughts, and his play through the first three days certainly should have comforted him. But he couldn’t shake the notion that if he failed to convert this 54-hole lead, questions about his closing ability would crescendo. He admitted to feeling the pressure.
Unlike the 2016 Masters, Spieth didn’t wait until the back nine to give away the lead. This time, it came early and was spread out over several holes, with Spieth’s putter failing him on a handful of critical and testy par putts. Three-footers started to look like 10 footers. He wondered why shots he had executed before were now failing him.
“Sometimes you just can’t really figure it out, put your finger on it,” Spieth said. “Am I pulling it? Pushing it? Am I doing both? What’s going on with the stroke?
“It’s just searching. And during the round today, I definitely thought any kind of fear or advantage that you can have in this moment over other individuals – not just Matt Kuchar today but other people that are watching – that’s being taken away by the way that I’m playing right now. And that was really tough to swallow.
“That kind of stuff goes into your head. I mean, we walk for two minutes, three minutes in between shots. And you can’t just go blank. You wish you could, but thoughts creep in.”
After the shaky start, Spieth had managed to build back a two-shot lead thanks to a birdie at the fifth hole and a Kuchar bogey at the sixth. But he still seemed shell-shocked and vulnerable. It reached a point that intervention was needed.
Spieth hit his tee shot on the par-3 seventh, then began walking down the fairway. Greller called him back. He wanted to say something. Earlier this month, Spieth had posted a photo from his vacation in Cabo that showed him in the company of elite athletes – including Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, the two best at their respective sports.
“You’re that caliber of an athlete,” Greller told Spieth. “But I need you to believe that right now because you’re in a great position in this tournament. This is a new tournament. We’re starting over here.”
It was a much-needed boost, but the dividends didn’t come immediately. In fact, a two-shot swing at the ninth tied the score again. Four holes later, Spieth was on the verge of a total collapse, his tee shot at the 13th hole sailing 100 yards right of the fairways and rolling down the wrong side of a steep dune into thick grass.
It became the moment of truth.
Jordan Spieth battles for a gutsy bogey at The Open
Taking his time and weighing his options – it would ultimately take 21 minutes; Spieth apologized profusely to Kuchar for the delay -- Spieth took an unplayable lie, then worked with the rules officials to figure out where he could hit his third shot. It was from the unlikeliest of spots – the practice range. Using a 3-iron and unable to see the pin, he sent his shot over the dune and near the green. Then he got up-and-down for bogey.
He was 1 shot down. But it was the jolt he needed. Despite the lost stroke, Greller told him the momentum had shifted. (For more on the dramatics at the 13th hole, click here).
Spieth was now the chaser. The nerves of leading had disappeared. “There was just a different energy about him,” Greller said.
Explained Spieth: “I was still uncomfortable, but I was able to take that shift that I’m talking about where your mind’s going through a bunch of different thoughts, and able to really take it over to the other side and say, this is a completely new situation. There was no other way I could think and still get the job done.”
For the first time all day, he wore his gameface. He nearly aced the par-3 14th; his kick-in birdie tied Kuchar. He reached the green in two at the par-5 15th … and of course made the eagle putt from 55 feet. He birdied the par-4 16th from 25 feet, then made an 8-footer at the par-5 17th.
Birdie. Eagle. Birdie. Birdie. That’s how you close. The walk toward the packed grandstands at 18 gave him time to exhale … and celebrate.
“Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way in the finishing stretch today,” Kuchar said, fighting back the disappointment of his own lost opportunity. “It was impressive stuff when a guy does something like that. All you can really do is sit back, tip your cap and say, ‘Well done.’
“It was certainly a show that he put on.”
Spieth would rather have used a different script – say 17 pars and a single birdie – to shoot the 1-under 69 he produced Sunday. He’d rather have avoided the drama. He’d rather not frazzle any nerves – his own or his fans.
“He would rather play boring golf,” Greller said.
But maybe this was the way it had to be done. Maybe this is how demons are erased, how mental scars are healed.
“There’s lot of roads to get there,” Spieth said. “… Closing today was extremely important for the way I look at myself.”
Finally, he can close the book on the 2016 Masters. Time to sip some wine from the Claret Jug and dream about his first shot next month at the career Slam.