Flashing the game and the grit his forebears would applaud, Jordan Spieth grabbed the lead at Birkdale

July 21, 2017

SOUTHPORT, England — It was, in its way, a beautiful afternoon. Wind and rain, wind and rain, wind and rain. Open weather. You’ve played through worse, no doubt. But it got your attention.

The humidity was building all through the day and when the first midafternoon downpour came, the spectators on the great lawn—giant TV, large beers, wood-fired pizzas—scattered fast. Out on the course, and in the space of minutes, the deep rough was drenched and the bunkers and greens, already saturated from a Wednesday rain, were starting to puddle, at least here and there. Michael Greller was wearing a ski hat and carrying five towels for his man, Jordan Spieth. Their bag, caddie told player, had never been heavier. And that was with his guy going good and shooting 69. Can you imagine if Spieth had shot Phil Mickelson’s 77? That bag is dragging.

So, the caddies were tested. The camera operators were tested. The squeegee guys were tested. Most of all, it almost goes without saying, the players playing through it were tested. Tested in a way that they cannot be tested in a gym, on a practice tee, at Kapalua. Jordan Spieth, stand up and take a bow, brother. Weather visited the second round of this 146th British Open and it was time to man up and that is what you did. (From the Urban Dictionary: “Brave it.” Not a sexist term.) Jordan Spieth, 23 going on 37, stood right in that weather, in his Under Armour this and his Under Armour that, and played the game that would have made his hard-assed, grind-it-out forebears proud. Anticipating rain, he wore not his little mini socks by ones that nearly reached his ankles. They never got wet.

Opens days are long. Off in the first group on Friday morning at 6:35 was the golfer you know as Beef. Off in the day’s last game at 4:16 p.m. was another Englishman, a Robert Dinwiddie. At an Open, the luck of the draw can dictate everything. We’re not saying Round II of ’17 was Round II of 2010 at St. Andrews or Round II of 1985 at Royal St. George’s or Round II of 1961 at Birkdale, Arnold Palmer presiding. But it was … challenging.

Here’s a thing we don’t often get in the States. Over the course of nine or 10 hours you can have two or three weather systems in coastal England and coastal Scotland. In the first two rounds, if you played early one day, you played late the next and that, as the poet (Frost) said, “made all the difference.” That’s why his place atop the yellow-and-red leaderboards, rain streaked and cheerfully gaudy, is all the more remarkable, because he got the worse of it on Thursday and Friday. He would dispute that (but that’s his nature). He says there was a two-hour period in his five-hour round (with one suspension for rain) during which the wind died down. Well, he would know. But the Union Jack flags and the Hugo Boss flags and the Royal Birkdale flags told a different story. They took no break.

He was off at 9:47 a.m. on Thursday, which means he played the front nine in cool, gusty conditions that offered little promise to a golfer looking to break 70, which Spieth did by five shots in the opener. His Friday round was the round of the day, 69 being one under par on this purest of pure English links. Yes, Rory McIlroy shot 68, which students of the higher maths will tell you is one shot fewer. But he played no shots, as Spieth did, gripping the life out of the club to make sure it did not leave his hands, noting his tee shot on the par-3 7th in particular.

Spieth won the Masters and the U.S. Open in 2015, and he’s been close in the PGA Championship and in the Open. Yes, halfway to the career grand slam. If he wins here, his second-round eagle on 15 will barely be a footnote, but we will give it the attention it deserves here now because links golf requires every trick in the book, including the ability to keep cool in the face of bad luck and appreciate when good fortune smacks you upside your head. Take it away, Jordan:

“Fifteen. As long as you don’t hit it in the two right pot bunkers, you should be able to reach the green in two. I didn’t hit a great drive. Iffy lie. I had a three-iron out and I changed to three-wood because I’ve hit the shot many times out of the rough with the three-wood, where you open the face and hit a cut shot off the left and let it just slide. And it was the smart shot because it was probably going to come out. It was going to come out better than the three-iron.

“There was no worry about covering anything in my mind. And as long as I got it on line with the green, it was either there or past. And Michael had said, ‘Why don’t you hit one about 60 yards short? Your wedge game has been so solid.’ I watched in [the morning] coverage and saw if you were past the pin, it was better. So I went with a three-wood.

“I mis-hit the shot because, which is probably why it looked so gross on the Shot Tracker. Obviously, I wanted it to miss the last bunker. I lined up way left with the whipping wind off the left, just to open the face and have it get anywhere around or over the green. And there really wasn’t much trouble to it. I thought the closer I was getting it to the pin or long, the easier the four would have been. I hit it low off the heel, which is easy to do when you’re trying to carve a cut. And it just one-hopped and scooted around the group of bunkers there.

“So it was really nice to capitalize on that. I knew after it had missed that bunker it was going to be pretty good. And then Michael and I had a reaction that I think kind of told what the shot was, which we knew it was pretty lucky, that we got away with one there. And I was able to knock that putt in.”

Spieth said he plans to wear his Friday socks again on Saturday. Smart move, guy. They’re working, he’s working, Greller is working, Kuchar is chasing. This looks good.