CHARLOTTE – Winning a career grand slam is supposed to be hard. Late in his opening round on a sunny and steamy afternoon, Jordan Spieth was in danger of posting a score that would make finishing his slam this week all but impossible. But then, flashing the resiliency that has become one of his hallmarks, he rallied with birdies on two of his final three holes to post a one-over 72, five shots behind the leaders and still within striking distance at this 99th PGA Championship.
"If I were to finish par, par, par, I would have thrown myself out of the tournament," Spieth said. "I was focused on what we had left. I had three looks and almost got back all the way to even."
As even the most casual golf fan knows by now, with a win this week, Spieth, 24, would become the youngest player to win all four major championships. After teeing off in the morning wave, he initially leaned on what is typically his most reliable club: his putter. On 11, his second hole, Spieth knocked in his first tester, a five-footer for par. On 12 he caught a flyer lie from the left rough and found the back of the green, 70 feet from the cup. He played about 20 feet of break on a sensational lag putt and tapped in for par.
But after making 4 on the gettable par-5 15th, things went awry. Spieth drove it into a fairway bunker on 16 and through clenched teeth barked, "Be a normal lie!" The lie was fine, but his approach found another bunker and he missed the 15-foot par-saver. On the brutally tough first hole, he made another bogey out of a bunker, then made bogeys on 5 and 6 to tumble down the scoreboard. As he stood on the tee at the par-5 7th, Spieth regrouped.
"We had a wait there and I thought to myself, 'They are not giving birdies at all.' You have to pull off some solid shots to make birdies on those holes," Spieth said. "I was focused on what we had left."
Digging deep, Spieth piped a drive on 7 and hammered a hybrid to the back of the green to set up a birdie. On 8, he played a deft, low pitch shot to kick-in range for another birdie. He two-putted for par on 9 and finished the day with 10 of 14 fairways hit but 32 total putts (he averages 28.55) on Quail's slick, sloping greens. "I can't putt any worse than I did today," Spieth said. "The score won't be any higher than it was today if I'm driving the ball [like] today."
Spieth was grouped with this season's other major-winners, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka, and the buzz surrounding the threesome was only heightened when 23-time Olympic gold medalist Micheal Phelps ducked under the ropes to tag along. (Spieth and Phelps reportedly became fast friends earlier this year at the pro-am at the Waste Management Open and vacationed together in Cabo.) While Spieth sits several shots behind on the scoreboard, Phelps leads the tournament in spectator cell-phone violations, as he paused for selfies and high-fived fans throughout his walk. At one point, the longtime Baltimore Ravens fan grinned at a man in a Pittsburgh Steelers cap and quipped, "You gotta change that hat, man."
Phelps had more fun than his friend.
"I don't think I was free-rolling," Spieth said in a callback to the relaxed mindset he claimed he experienced during his practice rounds. "When I had the chances that I had and I just couldn't get the ball to go in on the greens, that is when I get the most frustrated I can get out there."
For Spieth to make history, he'll first need to overtake his playing partner, Koepka, who fired a three-under 68 that was punctuated by a chip-in birdie on the third hole and an incredible escape shot over the pines on 9 to set up a closing par. Despite the fireworks, Koepka sounded nonchalant.
"I just kind of felt like I cruised it all day. Wasn't really anything that impressive," he said. "You've got to stay patient. You can't make doubles out here. That's the big thing. Make sure the worst score you make is a bogey and give yourself a couple good chances on the easier holes."
Koepka's confidence is palpable, and he's part of the large pack of players Spieth must now pass to make history. But with 54 holes remaining, he still has a shot.
"I know I'm still in it," Spieth said. "But I know that tomorrow's round becomes that much more important to work my way and stay in it. I've got to make up ground."