Jordan Spieth vs. The Old Course (And Other Challenges)
In this era of compressed time and constant commentary, much has been said already about young Jordan Spieth (21) and his old, fortysomething head. We know about his odd grip—that floating left index finger!—and something about his higher purpose. He plays for himself, his country (2013 Presidents Cup, ’14 Ryder Cup, ’15 Presidents Cup), his family and, quietly and meaningfully, his God. Like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones before him, he was a prodigy—a golfing Mozart. His game defies statistical analysis. (But keep knocking yourself out trying, Brad Faxon and Brandel Chamblee!) Now this week he is trying to do something that is so simple and timeless and great, it will captivate the attention of people who live far beyond the borders of golfdom. Here it comes: the third leg. The chase is on.
Modern men’s golf, as baby Eldrick learned in the short month he spent in the bassinet, has four major championships. All together now: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. In April, at Augusta, Spieth was the last man on the last green and won by four shots. In June, at Chambers Bay, he won the U.S. Open from the scorer’s trailer, when Dustin Johnson took three putts from 12 feet when he had the tournament’s final at bat. Now Spieth is taking his talents to the British Open, played this year as it typically is every five on the Old Course at St. Andrews. “The home of golf,” Spieth calls it. Exactly.
Talk about your celestial alignments. The moon is in the seventh house, whatever that means. Who knows what anything means anymore? (Strokes gained putting over replacement player, etc.) But if Spieth shoots the lowest score over four days on the old gray lady herself, we all will be able to process that delicious fact. In the meantime we will rise early and watch. Anticipation. Only one man has done what Spieth is trying to do—win the first three legs. Spieth’s path was blazed 62 years ago by a grinder from Fort Worth, Ben Hogan. Just claiming the first two prizes ain’t exactly easy: Spieth is only the sixth man to do it.
Can you spare a minute for a recap? Craig Wood won the Masters and the U.S. Open in 1941, but there was no British Open that year, owing to the war. In ’53, after taking Stages I and II, Hogan won the British Open at Carnoustie. (Bingo!) But the British and the PGA Championship overlapped that year, so Hogan never got to glory’s last shot. (Blech!) In ’72, Jack Nicklaus repeated what Arnold Palmer did in ’60, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open. Then each finished a shot behind the winner in the British Open. (Holy coincidence.) In 2002, Woods—whose epic Tiger Slam of 1999–2000 will never receive the attention it deserves—won the Masters and the U.S. Open. Woods then finished 28th in the British. That Open was at Muirfield, as it was when Nicklaus made his bid in ’72. The ’60 Open, won by Aussie Kel Nagle, was at the Old Course. That was Palmer’s first Open. Spieth’s parents had not yet been born.
Owing to long careers and long lives, the banquet circuit, the collected works of Herbert Warren Wind and Wikipedia, golf does some job of handing down its history. Jordan Spieth knows Jack Nicklaus, who knew Tommy Armour, winner of the 1931 Open. Armour knew Harry Vardon, who won the first of his six Opens in 1896. Vardon knew Old Tom Morris, who won the first of his four Opens in 1861 and was the Custodian of the Links when the Open was played at St. Andrews for the first time, in 1873. Somewhere around here, Kevin Bacon must be lurking.
It was only after Palmer’s near miss in 1960 that the Open became a regular stop for ambitious U.S. touring pros. Before that, playing the British Open was more like an occasional lark/history dip for the Americans. Hogan was 1 for 1 in Open play. Sam Snead won the Open in ’46 at St. Andrews, but he didn’t play in another until ’62. He figured he lost money that week in ’46, when first place paid $1,500. He also uttered a golf quote for the ages. Pulling into St. Andrews by train and looking directly at the ancient links, Snead said, “What’s that old abandoned golf course over there?” This year, the winner will pocket $1.66 million and one-year possession of a shapely, old silver wine jug. As for the Old Course, where Woods completed his career Grand Slam in 2000 at the age of 24, it is ranked fourth on the Golf Magazine list of the Top 100 courses in the world. No course has a more wicked sense of humor. A fairway bunker on 16 is called the Principal’s Nose. You can read all about it, and the Sands of Nakajima too.
The best possible preparation for any British Open, Phil Mickelson will tell you, is to play in the Scottish Open the week before, which is what Mickelson did this year and in others, including 2013, when he won the Open at Muirfield. Tiger’s preferred pretournament preparation, going back to his first stint as a bachelor, was a fishing trip with Mark O’Meara and some deep-pocketed Irish cronies, playing a little seaside golf on the Emerald Isle along the way. Spieth, Dallas-born and Dallas-bred, prepared for his third Open by teeing it up last week at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill.
Spieth honored his commitment to the old Quad Cities stop, which he won in 2013. This year, sporting what passes for a playoff beard on this kid, he rallied from four shots down with six holes to play and won in a two-hole playoff over 47-year-old journeyman Tom Gillis. Spieth got into the last twosome on Sunday by shooting a Saturday 61 on a soft, tree-lined course, TPC Deere Run, that is nothing like St. Andrews. He’ll play whatever course you put in front of him, as his four wins this year show. On Sunday night, he and 18 other Open-bound players flew on a JDC-sponsored charter, a Boeing 767, from Quad Cities International Airport to Edinburgh. That flight is an important part of the John Deere tournament. It also helps QCIA retain the rights to its name.
At a crowded press conference about 90 minutes after Spieth had won the U.S. Open, a reporter, playing the word-association game with the champ, proffered St. Andrews. This was the 21-year-old golfer’s response: “The home of golf. I’ve played one round on St. Andrews, and it was when we were playing in the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen. We went as a team to visit St. Andrews first. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I remember walking around the R&A clubhouse and seeing paintings of royalty playing golf, and it was dated 14-whatever, 1460-something. I’m thinking, they were playing golf here before anyone even knew that the Americas existed. And that really amazed me and helped me realize exactly how special that place is. And that’s what comes to mind.”
Of course, Spieth’s pursuit of golfing history is not the only story line (to use the favorite phrase of U.S. golf broadcasters) at St. Andrews.
• Will this be, as advertised, the final Open for 65-year-old Tom Watson, winner of five claret jugs? Survey says: Yes. A top 10 finish—totally within reach—gets Watson into the Open through 2020. But golf being golf, expect heartbreak. Regardless, the Old Course is the perfect place for Watson to say farewell.
• Can Woods rediscover the Old Course magic, so evident when he won at St. Andrews in 2000 and ’05? Survey says: No. That magic is gone. But he can find something else, and he still understands the tricks of negotiating the Old Course as well as anybody.
• What will Dustin Johnson, the golf savant who has not played since Chambers Bay, do on a course that requires so much guile? Survey says: Contend. At St. Andrews in ’95, Nicklaus was confounded by some of the decisions that Johnson’s progenitor, John Daly, made as he played in—and Long John still won in a playoff.
Nicklaus used to say that he would go into a mild funk any year he didn’t win the Masters, because that meant he had to wait 12 months to have another chance at the Grand Slam. Well, Spieth is halfway there.
Obstacles await. The Principal’s Nose. The weight of history. A deep field, even without injured world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, that includes at least two dozen I-should-have-picked-him potential winners. The fickle weather of coastal Scotland. The moodiness of the old gray lady.
For now, Grand Slam talk must take a backseat. The game didn’t even have a Triple Crown until another son of Texas golf marched through Scotland in the summer of ’53. That was then. Here comes the 144th Open Championship, on the Old Course. Here comes Spieth.