CARNOUSTIE — Monday afternoon was mellow here, as Jordan Spieth, the champion golfer of the year, approached the first tee for his first practice round of this 147th British Open. Most of the noise came from the gulls and down the beach there were the squeals of kids on holiday. The kid on the first tee is wrapping up his year as the champion of the year. He’s wrapping up his year as a kid, too. At 24, he still qualifies. Come July 27, all bets are off. That’s the day he turns 25.
Of course, he could get an extension as the champion golfer of the year. All he has to do, of course, is win again. The last time a guy kept the jug two years running was in 2007 and 2008, when Padraig Harrington kept his little Irish fingers on it. He won at Carnoustie, then Birkdale. Spieth is looking to reverse the order. His win last year, literally off the dunes of the sublime Royal Birkdale course, was one for the ages, which is a considerable statement. The first Open was played in 1860, and the runner-up, Old Tom Morris, broke 60 for all three rounds. But Prestwick was only 12 holes back then.
It was wild, Sunday night at Birkdale last year, and maybe it will be wild again, this Sunday at Carnoustie, but on Monday there was no hint that any kind of storm is brewing. The course is dry, the greens are slow, the rough is thin. Give the old links time. Its nastiness lies in wait.
Two of Scotland’s tabloids had golf on the front page on Monday. The Courier showed Tiger Woods coming off a private jet in Dundee, knapsack on his back, in shorts and sneakers, like an American on a European vacation, though he is surely not. The Daily Star had Donald Trump on its front page and this subhead: “Golf-mad President can’t wait to swing by again.” It’s hard to imagine what Spieth could do to wind up on a tab cover here. He’s not built for that sort of thing. PTL!
Spieth hasn’t won since claiming his third major last year and some people, who maybe don’t have enough to worry about in their lives, seem mightily concerned with Spieth’s short putting, long putting, driving accuracy, weightlifting and some other things. But wouldn’t you like to have three legs of the grand slam in the books before turning 25? You maybe recall what Trump said of Vladimir Putin and the outrage it caused. Had he been talking about Spieth it would not have made a ripple: “Spieth’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.” It’s not like he has forgotten how to win. Just last fall he was on the winning U.S. Presidents Cup team!
OK, he had a team around him that week, most notably Patrick Reed, with whom he played four times without losing. But Spieth always has a team around. You’ve heard him use the word “we” a thousand times in press conferences, typically to include his caddie, Michael Greller, but also his parents, his fiancé, his swing coach, his siblings and others. Spieth invented this “we” thing. The Texan who won here in 1953—and Spieth noted in his Monday press conference that was the only time Ben Hogan ever played in a British Open—would surely not get the royal usage. But if the team is there for you in the good times it becomes even more useful when winning suddenly doesn’t seem so easy.
Speaking of Carnoustie’s quirky 8th hole, Spieth said on Monday, “Someone told me if we hit a draw on a par 3, it could land on the green and be out of bounds.”
Assessing the state of his game, Spieth said on Monday, “Is it as consistent as it’s ever been? Probably not. But can it be by the time we tee off? Absolutely. Does it have to be to win the tournament? No, because [golf] requires so much feel over here. As long as I play to the right spots and give myself enough chances, it can be good enough.”
The subtext was clear: We are not freaked out about anything! He is not, Greller is not, Team Spieth is not. It would be surprising if he doesn’t contend. In April at Augusta, you may recall, a Sunday charge made him the leader in the clubhouse for a brief spell, and he finished third. Jordan Spieth is about the sanest young golfer you’ll ever see, he plays both great tactical golf and great emotional golf.
The R&A makes the defending champion give the Claret Jug back at the start of the week. Spieth did that Monday afternoon. He hated it.
“It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, what you guys had me do there, but it’s done,” Spieth told an R&A media official. “So, yeah, hopefully it’s only out of my possession for a week.”
Later, answering a reporter’s question, Spieth said, “I thought maybe somebody would meet me in the parking lot, and I’d just give them the case back and we’d move on. But it was a ceremony. And because of that, it actually hit me harder. I was like, man, this was in my possession. I took it to all the places that allowed me to get to where I am today. My family was able to take it around. Members of the team were able to take it. It’s the coolest trophy that our sport has to offer.
“But my game feels good. I needed a break. I was kind of dragging along, cut-line golf for a while, and playing a pretty heavy schedule, and I needed to kind of get away from the game, which I did.
“An Open Championship requires a lot of feel and imagination, and I think that’s what I need. I’d gotten very technical, very into making everything perfect, instead of playing the way I normally play. So this week you don’t know how far the ball is necessarily going to go off the tee. You need to play the spots, and then you have to use your imagination from there. Hold the ball. Ride the wind.”
Play the bounces. Pack a ski cap. Find your ball. Mark your ball. Avoid the bunkers. Take your medicine. Sharpen your tees. Accept bad bounces. Slug those uphill putts. Chart the port-a-johns. Also the leaderboards. Count your clubs. And your blessings. Jordan Spieth is wrapping up his reign as the champion golfer of the year, unless he’s not. Either way, you think he’s worried?
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]