ST. ANDREWS, Scotland—So much for respecting your elders.
Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old Texan in hot pursuit of golf’s gaudiest feat, the Grand Slam, went about his business in the first round of the 144th Open Championship as if he was still flag-hunting at the John Deere Classic. On a revered course that has existed on this rumpled, windblown land for more than 600 years and which takes lesser players decades to unriddle, Spieth birdied five of his first seven holes and made seven birdies in all on his way to a mostly stress-free 67, leaving him two behind early leader and Spieth’s first-round playing partner Dustin Johnson.
“I’m very pleased with the start,” Spieth said.
Spieth’s seeming imperviousness to pressure is fast becoming auld news. He led wire to wire at the Masters, becoming the second-youngest Masters winner behind Tiger Woods in 1997. He shook off a 71st hole double-bogey at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay to birdie the last and become the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923. And now in the shadows of the most famous toon in golf he has commenced the second half off his quest for the Spieth Slam as if he were still at home in Dallas playing the Old Course on his simulator, not on the grandest stage in golf.
In relatively benign conditions, Speith batted better than .800 in both fairways hit and greens hit, no small task on a slippery links like the Old Course. He has played his last nine rounds in the majors in a combined 30-under-par. In the 21 rounds he has played since the Colonial, in May, he’s a combined 63-under-par.
Spieth’s first round wasn’t perfect, certainly not after he made the turn and had to play back into the breeze. His first slip-up came when he deposited his tee shot into one of the Coffin bunkers on the par-4 13th, arguably the Old Course’s toughest driving hole. Spieth pitched out sideways, hit his approach just short of the green and two-putted from 25 feet for bogey. On 14, a par 5, things could have gotten messier still. Spieth hit his second shot into some wispy grass then airmailed his short-iron approach 40 yards past the pin. From there he chipped his ball about 15 feet past the hole and did what he almost always does when he’s in a jam: drained the putt.
“Obviously, you can never use backspin to get the ball close at St. Andrews or any links course,” Justin Rose said earlier in the week, speaking of Spieth. “My opinion, 20, 30 feet, that is where you are going to have putts and that’s where he is at his best. He knocks in more 20-, 30-footers than anybody on tour.”
If 20-footers don’t undo Spieth, 20-mph winds might. St. Andrews is bracing itself for foul weather on Friday: heavy rain in the morning, followed by a blustery afternoon, with gusts of up to 35 mph late in the day. (And more wind on Saturday.) With a 2:32 p.m. starting time in the second round, Spieth is likely to catch the worst of it. He’s proven that he’s difficult to rattle, but if Old Man Wind starts blowing flagsticks sideways Spieth will need to summon all of his steel and patience.
The other looming obstacle would appear to be the lithe, 6-foot-4-inch Johnson, who in the first round showed no signs of lingering trauma from his 72nd-hole three-putt a month ago at the U.S. Open. Playing alongside Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama (72), Johnson matched Spieth’s outward 31, then added birdies at 10 and 13 to come home in 34 for a stout 65.
“If D.J. keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance,” Spieth said. “It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there’s only two par-5s. I don’t have that in the bag, so I’ve got to make up for it with ball-striking.”
One scribe had the audacity to ask whether Spieth believes he can beat Johnson.
Said Spieth, “If I didn’t, I would go ahead and walk off and take a flight back home tomorrow.”
As Spieth wrapped his first round, the wind began to pick up, forcing him to play more cautiously. At the par-4 17th, he dumped his approach into the retooled Road Hole bunker. He blasted out to 10 feet but when he was unable to convert the putt, he carded his second bogey of the round and dropped back to 4-under. Another hiccup came on the home hole. With a freshening breeze into his face and the whine of bagpipes emanating from town, Spieth snap-hooked his tee shot across the breadth of the 18th fairway and nearly across the adjacent 1st fairway, too.
When he arrived at his ball, he paced off the 92 yards he had left to the green, then strolled back to his ball where he deliberated for a couple of minutes before launching a wedge 15 feet past the stick. When he poured in the slippery downhill left-to-right putt for a 3, a fist pump followed, then another. Then came a spirited fist-bump with his caddie Michael Greller.
There are still three more rounds to play in this 29th Open on the Old Course, but Spieth knows that he is in a good place: two strokes back, in the hunt for history.