ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The 144th British Open was about rain, wind and balls moving around on the greens seemingly of their own accord. It was about Nick Faldo’s sweaters, Tom Watson’s twilight, Tiger Woods’s ennui, and waiting—mostly waiting. In other words we didn’t really know what this Open was about.
We do now. Jordan Spieth, 21, took advantage of a defenseless Old Course, rocketing up the leaderboard with a third-round 66 to put himself in position for a historic third straight major championship victory. Should that come to pass, he would keep the calendar-year grand slam in his sights; no one has ever won all four majors in one year.
“I do recognize what’s at stake,” Spieth said. “And for me to accomplish that feat is going to be to simplify things and just go about our business.”
Vying to become the first player to win the season’s first three majors since Ben Hogan in 1953, Spieth shot a back-nine 32 to get to 11-under par and was just one shot behind co-leaders Jason Day (67); 22-year-old Irish amateur Paul Dunne (66); and South African Louis Oosthuizen (67), who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews.
Two-time British Open winner Padraig Harrington (65) also shot into contention and was at 10-under par, just two back. Zach Johnson (70), Adam Scott (70) and 46-year-old Retief Goosen (69) were among those in a massive logjam at 9-under.
There were 14 players within three shots of the lead, but aside from the amateur Dunne, who just graduated from the University of Alabama Birmingham, there was no doubt who would draw the most attention in Monday’s final round: Spieth.
“He’s a heavy favorite, even being one shot back,” said Australia’s Day, who will join Spieth in the second to last twosome for the final round. “Everyone knows it.”
With a victory, Spieth, who will turn 22 next week, would make history—neither Jack Nicklaus nor Tiger Woods ever won the first three majors of the golf season—and also surpass the injured world No. 1 Rory McIlroy atop the World Ranking.
That’s a lot to play for, and Spieth was already trying to steady himself.
“It hasn’t come up in my head while I’ve been playing yet,” he said after taking just 27 putts Sunday, including crucial par-savers at 13 and 17. “I can’t speak for tomorrow, given that it’s the last round, and if I have a chance coming down the stretch, if it creeps in, I’ll embrace it—I’ll embrace the opportunity that presents itself.”
Rain and wind made the season’s third major a maddening stop-and-start affair, pushing the start of the third round to Sunday, when competitors found an easier Old Course—soggy from rain that fell overnight and in the morning, and devoid of wind.
The birdie barrage was on—David Duval shot a 5-under 67 to get to 5-under. Rickie Fowler came in with a 66 to get to 7-under. English pro Eddie Pepperell, 24, came in with a 66 (8-under total) despite hitting his drive off the Old Course Hotel and making a double-bogey at the 17th hole. Marc Leishman had a 64 to get to 9-under.
“Perfect conditions,” said Jim Furyk, who shot 66 to get to 6-under.
“Getting out with no wind was amazing,” said Leishman, who made eight birdies and no bogeys.
After making birdie at the par-4 first hole and the par-5 fifth, Spieth was stuck in neutral. He birdied the par-4 seventh to get to 8-under but bogeyed the ninth, where he’d split the fairway and left himself only a lob wedge for his approach shot.
“I think I punched my golf bag,” he said. “I wasn’t going to break a club or anything, or throw a club, but I just—I didn’t want to hit Michael [Greller, Spieth’s caddie], so I figured I’d hit my golf bag. … To be at 2-under at that point, when the front nine is gettable and as easy as the conditions get, I was extremely frustrated.”
In retrospect, it was a very productive outburst. On the inward nine, where Spieth had shot no better than even par for the week, he went 4-under.
Monday will no doubt feature a crowded leaderboard, and most likely there will be more wind and rain, which was falling shortly after the end of play Sunday. Harrington, 43, will be going for his third Open title and his fourth major. Day will try to heed the lessons of close calls at the Masters and elsewhere. Oosthuizen, who could and probably should have won a second major by now, will try to right that wrong. There will be many possible storylines, and the amateur Dunne is sure to be a crowd favorite.
But after a shaky couple of days the Spieth Slam is back on, and nothing is bigger than that. The 144th British Open has found its footing.