2017 Open Championship: Jordan Spieth wins with iron will, brilliant back nine

Jordan [expletive]ing Spieth. Any questions?

Spieth won the 146th Open Championship on Sunday, and he did so with one of the most mind-bending, soul-crushing, exhilarating stretches of golf in the sport’s history. Over the course of less than an hour, Spieth hit one of the worst tee shots of his life, one of the finest tee shots of the day, and the most clutch eagle putt of the entire tournament. He flipped a one-shot deficit into a two-shot lead in just three holes. He flat-out outplayed a cheery, consistent Matt Kuchar on a day when consistency wasn’t nearly enough. And he ended up cementing his name as the second-youngest golfer, after only Jack Nicklaus, to complete the first three legs of a career Grand Slam.

The key moment of the tournament—and, when the books start getting written, possibly of Spieth’s entire career—came on the 13th hole. Spieth’s tee shot drifted right, so far right that it ended up on the far side of a dune so steep that he could barely stand on it. Spieth had already frittered away a three-shot lead to the amiable, highly competent Kuchar. And now, 15 months after he’d watched another Sunday back-nine lead vaporize, Spieth was facing the imminent demise of his round, his hopes, and—let’s be honest—at the very least, his short-term legacy.

Spieth ultimately decided to take an unplayable lie on that shot, and seeing where the ball was, it’s obvious why:

The ball was at his feet, and the flag stick was on the other side of this hill for Jordan Spieth. (Getty)

So Spieth was looking at a horrendous, card-scorching hole, a double-bogey or worse, when he stepped up to the ball 75 yards away from the top of the hill and another 75 yards to the pin he couldn’t see. Kuchar was safely on the green, kneeling in anticipation.

And then, right then, Spieth shrugged off whatever garbage had been clouding his head and his swing all day, and began a relentless march that started on the far-distant practice range and ended with a Claret Jug in his hand.

Spieth cleared the hill and dropped a flyer right between two bunkers, and managed to escape 13 with a bogey. He’d surrendered the lead for the first time all week, but the escape from catastrophe energized him. Spieth nearly jarred his tee shot on 14, drained the birdie putt, then rolled in a curling 48-foot putt for eagle on 15 that put him two strokes clear of Kuchar. He kept the pedal floored with birdies on 16 and 17—that would be a five-under score over four holes since the dune debacle—and from there, it was a loud, ceremonial walk up the 18th fairway to the Royal Birkdale clubhouse and the third major trophy in Spieth’s career.

The line on Royal Birkdale coming into the tournament was simple and, in retrospect, prophetic. Keep the ball on the flat fairways, and you could chart your way right into red numbers. With the exception of the opening few pairings on Thursday and the last few on Friday, weather wasn’t a factor in the first three days. This was a job for a tactical golfer, and there isn’t a more dedicated strategist in the game than Spieth.

Picking his spots like a boxer sizing up an opponent’s weakness, Spieth targeted Royal Birkdale and rabbit-punched his way to double-digit red numbers. Coming into Sunday, he had only four bogeys the entire week, all coming on Friday. Spieth held a share of the lead on Thursday, and then pushed two strokes clear of the field on that ugly Friday.

The cut line dropped at five over, 11 strokes behind Spieth, and that allowed virtually every big name in golf to remain on the course, if not necessarily in contention. And then Saturday dawned, bright and calm and easy, and the players began an assault on the course unmatched in Open history. Branden Grace carded a major-record 62, and even that score was only six strokes ahead of the field’s average.

Sitting in his flat, watching red numbers fly, Spieth must have wanted to get onto the course as quickly as possible. And once he did, Spieth extended his lead another stroke, and the talk began—talk of majors, and Claret Jugs, and career Grand Slams, and final revenge for that blown lead at the 12th hole at Augusta last year.

But that’s the problem with crowning someone champion on Saturday: Sunday has a way of altering the narrative. Before Spieth and Kuchar even teed off, two of their primary challengers lit themselves on fire, as Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson carded a triple and a double bogey, respectively. Just 45 minutes after the leaders began, Haotong Li finished out with a 63, setting the floor for the championship at six-under.

Spieth got himself in trouble with his very first shot, missing the fairway left. “That’s just crap,” he seethed. “I’m not going to get rewarded for a good shot.”

“Get over it,” Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, shot back, but Spieth didn’t, not immediately. He bogeyed that hole and two of the next three, and by the time the leaders walked to the fifth tee, Spieth’s three-stroke lead was gone.

Over the next eight holes, Spieth looked as un-Spieth-like has he has in years—missing short putts, sailing approach shots, sending tee shots wide. But nothing could have prepared him, or the entire golf world, for what was about to come.

It took awhile, and it took iron will, but Spieth has finally wrestled his third major to the ground. And now, the only question that remains for him is how many more there are ahead.

Jordan Spieth exults as Matt Kuchar walks past. (Getty)