Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2017

An Open Won Before Most Fans Were Even Watching

When is a golf tournament won? Is it when the final putt falls into the cup and the last shouts and applause from the fans surrounding the 18th green wash down onto the putting surface? Or does the moment come a bit later and out of sight of those fans, as technical purists would doubtless insist, when the final pairing’s scorecards have been signed and attested, making all results official? If circumstances align, might not the ending come with shots still to be struck, if each of the players still on the course has accumulated more total strokes than the leader in the clubhouse?

A case could be made for each of these alternatives. But all three moments occur on the final day of a tournament; surely there are times when the defining moment of four days of play arrives much earlier, and all that comes after is but the steady unfolding of events to a conclusion as certain as azaleas at the Masters and as inescapable as Hell Bunker on the 14th at the Old Course. Such was the case at this year’s Open Championship, played at the Royal Birkdale links on England’s west coast. There were still 36 holes to play after Friday’s second round, and there were only two strokes between the leader and his closest competitor. In theory, anything could happen. But in that second round, when the wind howled and the rain pelted down, Jordan Spieth claimed the title that would be officially awarded to him two days later, that of Champion Golfer of the Year.

Spieth arrived at Royal Birkdale off a victory in his last start for weeks earlier. At the Travelers Championship he had led after every round, only to find himself tied when Daniel Berger made a late birdie on Sunday. Spieth wasted no time in the ensuing playoff, holing out for the winning birdie from a greenside bunker on the first extra hole. Starting the Open under Thursday’s benign conditions, Spieth rolled in five birdie putts with no bogeys to sit at the top of the leader board, tied with Matt Kuchar and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka at 5-under par. The three were among thirty-nine players to break par in the opening round. That number grew to forty-three in Saturday’s third round, despite the midway cut having reduced the field by half. One of those was Brandon Grace, whose 8-under par 62 set a record for the lowest single round score in any major. Even on Sunday, when the wind picked up and final round pressure came into play, twenty-five golfers returned scorecards with totals below par. That number included 21-year old Haotong Li, the only player from China in the field. Li’s 63, which featured birdies on each of the final four holes, matched the old record for lowest round in a major.

But on Friday Royal Birkdale was an entirely different story. Golfers fortunate enough to be in the morning wave endured stiff winds that made club selection difficult, blew good shots off course and turned errant strikes into disasters. Yet they still counted themselves lucky, because players with afternoon tee times dealt with not just the wind but also rain that ranged from steady to torrential. Seaside links courses are built on sand and thus able to absorb a lot of water. But late Friday afternoon the R&A was forced to briefly suspend play so that the grounds crew could squeegee standing water off the greens. Under the brutal conditions only eight golfers bettered par.

Spieth was one of those ill-fated golfers with a Friday afternoon tee time. Had he posted a 74 or 75, a typical score for the day, no one save perhaps Spieth himself would have criticized the effort. Instead he began the round with a birdie at the first. More than three rain-soaked and wind-swept hours later he and caddie Michael Greller stood in the light rough just off the 15th fairway. With three birdies and three bogeys Spieth was even on the day, an excellent score under the circumstances. Greller counseled laying up with a 3-iron, but Spieth wanted to go for the green with a 3-wood.

In this player-caddie relationship, Spieth allows Greller to veto his club choice twice each season. But before this became one of those times, he explained his thinking to his bag man, telling Greller that even if he went over the green with the fairway wood, anywhere around the putting surface other than a bunker on the left side left him with a better chance of getting up and down for birdie than trying to do so from sixty of more yards away after a layup. Greller relented and Spieth slashed the 3-wood. The result was not a shot rolling through the green but rather one that came to a stop on the soaked short grass, leaving him with a putt for eagle. Spieth converted that opportunity and even with a bogey on the 17th finished his round at 1-under par 69 to move to 6-under for the tournament.

It was a score that pushed Spieth two shots clear of the field and set him up as the heavy favorite to win the Open. Those odds got even better when the weekend weather produced far more favorable scoring conditions. As the third-ranked player in the world and a former number one, in good form off his Travelers win and with two majors already on his resume, Spieth seemed as likely as anyone to be able to take advantage of a lenient Royal Birkdale. He did so on Saturday, firing a 65, one better than playing partner Matt Kuchar, to further expand his lead.

There was drama on Sunday when Spieth’s putter, normally the deadliest weapon in his bag, deserted him on the front nine. And Spieth and Greller tested the limits of the rules by taking more than twenty minutes to figure out how to proceed when the tee shot on the 13th hole flew wildly off-line. But in the end Spieth and Kuchar both returned 69s, and the final margin was the same three strokes that had separated them on the first tee.

His victory gives Spieth three legs of the career Grand Slam, and makes him the betting favorite for next month’s PGA Championship, where he will have the chance to complete the Slam. It allowed him to supplant Tiger Woods and stand just behind Jack Nicklaus on the list of youngest players to win three different majors. In the coverage of this year’s Open Championship, much will be made of Spieth’s late charge, when he nearly holed his tee shot on the par-3 14th, sunk a monster eagle putt on the par-5 15th, and followed that with two more birdies. Plenty will also be written about Spieth nearly melting down with his front nine putting woes and the unplayable lie penalty on the 13th. That he recovered will lead the armchair analysts to declare him freed of the burden of his collapse at last year’s Masters.

But had Spieth shot 74 or 75 on Friday, a typical score for the day, he wouldn’t have been in the last pairing in the final round, and his heroics down the stretch would not have mattered. For all the Sunday drama, it was two days earlier that Jordan Spieth showed the mettle that is required to become the Champion Golfer of the Year.

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