ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Jordan Spieth stood on the ninth tee and tried to regroup. The wind was blowing hard into him, the rain spitting in his face. Spieth had just double-bogeyed the par-3 eighth hole with a shocking four-putt from in front of the green, going from 14 to 12 under par, and his caddie Michael Greller leaned in to say something.
“I understand that,” Spieth said in a clipped tone, audibly agitated.
Understood what? That they were still just three behind then-co-leaders Zach Johnson and Adam Scott? That Spieth had double-bogeyed a hole even later in his round than this and still won the U.S. Open?
“I don’t even remember,” Greller said later as he and Spieth walked to their waiting car after congratulating winner Zach Johnson. “I said, ‘We’re still in it.’ And we were. He played the next four or five holes great.”
True, Spieth bounced back with birdies at the par-4 ninth and 10th holes, erasing his double-bogey at the eighth to get right back in the hunt.
So what exactly killed the Spieth Slam?
It was more than Johnson’s epic final-round 66, and for that matter Marc Leishman’s epic 66. It was more than Louis Oosthuizen being too tough at St. Andrews. Spieth lost to all three of those players by a stroke, but he also tied playing partner Jason Day (70). That’s not to say Spieth lost this tournament. Johnson won it because he was on, but also because Spieth was not on, at least not all the way. (We saw what that looks like at the Masters.)
On the plus side, Spieth said Sunday he didn’t want to finish third, and he didn’t. He tied for fourth. But on the minus side he was thisclose to setting the sports world atwitter by becoming the first player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year since Ben Hogan in 1953. He was thisclose to taking Rory McIlroy’s No. 1 ranking. He was thisclose to going to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits with an unprecedented calendar-year grand slam in the balance.
When it was over, after he’d barely missed a long birdie try from the Valley of Sin, and Day had missed his own birdie chance from behind the hole, Spieth signed his card and spoke to the press. He ducked into a portable cabin to talk to the TV people. When he emerged he, Greller and Jay Danzi, Spieth’s agent, walked wordlessly over a large pedestrian bridge that spans Golf Place road, piled into a Mercedes sedan—Spieth and Danzi in the back, Greller in the front passenger seat—and were driven away. (Spieth and Greller would later return for Johnson’s victory celebration.)
How did it not happen for Jordan Spieth? In broad strokes he didn’t win because he came to St. Andrews with his A game after winning the John Deere Classic, but somewhere, somehow, all that wind and rain, all those delays, and yes, a little inexperience with links golf, seemed to take a toll.
This was a big Open for youth—amateurs Jordan Niebrugge, who won the silver medal; Paul Dunne; Spieth himself—but when it comes time to hand out the claret jug, the British Open often favors the kind of fortitude that can only be built over time. This explains 40-something winners Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson (2011-’13, respectively), and, even more so, senior contenders Greg Norman (’08) and Tom Watson (’09).
Specifically, though, Spieth didn’t win because of mediocre putting.
Winning the British Open, Tiger Woods said before the tournament, requires great lag putting. Great lag putting is about getting your speed right. Getting your speed right is about a lot of things, but to a large degree it’s about logging enough time on the greens, and not the practice greens. Only the actual greens—the enormous double greens that are unique to this style of golf—present players with the kind of 40-yard putt Spieth had on 8.
“On these practice greens you’re not able to get a good feel for the touch,” Spieth said. “It’s tough to get pace practice because they’re so small, so I didn’t have much of it this week and I kind of had to go off my feels.
“I did plenty of work on the golf course,” Spieth quickly added. “It’s no excuse. But as far as right before the round, getting a pace for that day and the conditions and how the greens are cut, it’s tough.”
Before he failed to bury his seven-foot par try at 17 on Monday, and before his four-putt double-bogey at the eighth hole, Spieth—the best putter on any tour in 2015—took 37 putts, including five three-putts, in the weather-delayed second round. That would be a high number even for a relatively poor putter like Vijay Singh, but it was stunning for Spieth.
“My speed control was really what cost me this week,” he said. As for his disastrous four-putt at the eighth, he added, “I had left so many of them short throughout the week, I said, I’m not leaving this one short, and instead I hit it off the other side of the green where it was really dead there, so that was a mental mistake on my part. Instead of accepting eight feet [away from the pin] from 40 yards like I do on a 40-yard wedge shot, I instead was a little too aggressive with it when it wasn’t necessary.”
For what it’s worth, Padraig Harrington, playing in the twosome just in front of Spieth, also putted up the hill, past the pin, and off the back of the eighth green. (The pin was on a ridge that drops off precipitously.) But from there Harrington—who briefly led after three birdies in his first five holes but went into a nosedive (75)—got up and down for bogey. Spieth didn’t.
There were other loose shots. His drive on 17, into the wind and rain, left him too far back to reach the green. His duck hook off the 18th tee left him in between clubs for his second shot, which he spun off the green.
In the end, though, Woods called it. The massive double greens at the Old Course had claimed another victim. After the round Spieth turned his attention to the upcoming PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and wondered aloud how many players had won three majors in the same year. He will presumably come to St. Andrews in 2020 or 2021 (for the 150th Open). And by then he will presumably have at least four rounds of tournament play on the Old Course under his white belt (if he doesn’t add to his total at the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship).
Given what just transpired here, it might not be wise to bet against him.