Golf: A timeless tale unfolded at The Open as Jordan Spieth buried ghosts of his past

The story of this year's championship will be told timelessly and tirelessly in the sport's history.

 |   Long-form |   24-07-2017
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What happened on homeward stretch in The Open this year had all the dramatic turns and twists to become one of the greatest tale, of the Royal Birkdale, to be told timelessly and tirelessly in history. 

This year, the battle royale, unlike last year's duel between Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson, didn’t take place between two top leaders, namely Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth. Instead, it was a classic battle royale, waged between the course and the top contender; where, Spieth finally buried the ghosts of his famous meltdown of the 2016 Masters by bouncing back brilliantly from an almost inevitable edge of similar precipitous fall into disgrace.

Just consider, at the Masters, starting from tenth hole, Spieth lost six strokes to surrender to Danny Willet, but this Sunday, the story was scripted in reverse as he recovered five strokes, starting from eleventh, to seal the lead over Matt Kuchar and win the Claret Jug - possibly to drink the French wine for which the cup was originally meant for.

And in doing so, he forever stamped his seal on golfing greatness - by showing character, skill, mindset and much more. By showing a class act with possibly no peers, he became the Michael Jordan of golf and joined Rory McIlroy to wait and win one more Major and complete a career Major Slam.

History will remember how everyone felt they were witnessing a virtual surreal replay of his Masters meltdown, when he scrambled on hill several times after hitting a wayward drive on the tenth hole and took 25 minutes to hit a shot and escape with a bogey.

It takes a superman to shake up similar mental baggage and he chose to do so by following golf’s famous mantra - of living in the moment and taking one shot at a time.

Going by his past as well as past performances of the players, the world expected the worst to unfold. But lo and behold, Spieth unleashed one of the greatest displays of skilful lessons on the art of golf shot making. He composed himself, cooled and collected himself and his thoughts and birdied, eagled, birdied, birdied next four holes to put the match beyond everyone’s reach to end at 12 under. In the process, the American set a record score at Birkdale.

spiethbd_072417033838.jpgUSA’s Jordan Spieth celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship.

Life can be terrific and tragic on either turns. This Open was heading to be possibly remembered as the Waterloo of Spieth much like the Masters; instead, now it would be remembered for the super heroics of Jordan Spieth.

His record of ten PGA tour victories had already put him at par with Tiger Woods, and his third Major victory before the age of 24 puts him next to the great Jack Nicklaus. Some achievement at such a young age and the victory speech reflected his humility and humanity.

Let us now relive some of the events of this year's Open.

The first-day events were staid and conditions were calm allowing for low scores with Spieth and Koepka leading the field. However, fortunes fluctuated with weather on second day as the Royal Birkdale truly displayed lurking challenges associated with link courses - rain, wind, water, heavy atmosphere all added up to allow only 8-under par score cards out of 156.

On day two, Spieth, despite about 60 per cent success in finding fairways, averaging 260 yards driving distance, spewed superb skills in subduing challenges posed by winds (eight to 22mph), shivering cold and pouring rain that caused gripping problems. He had four bogeys, three birdies and an eagle on his card that day. In fact, in true characteristics of a champion, he consolidated his grip on the Claret Jug by showing a touch of class around the greens, reminding of the past exploits of Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros.

On rather calm conditions for a links course on the third day (43 players shot under par scores), Spieth struck 78 per cent greens in regulation and unleashed umpteenth birdies (five) taking three strokes shield to shatter others psychologically and put Matt Kuchar on the mat for the day.

The last Open champion on Royal Birkdale, Padraig Harrington, had quite a visible heartbreak when his chip on the closing hole kissed and rolled over the cup, cutting him off the cut line.

Zach Johnson posted the best score on second day till Brendon Grace posted 62 on day three - lowest-ever round in a Major history of 157 years and 442 Majors and became a brand (en) that will grace the gallery of golfing greats.

After showing tremendous promise, all three - Matt Kuchar, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose - surged on the pro-tour about the same time with only Kuchar still not been able to shake the tag of not winning a Major (had only one top-three finish at Major before this Open) though he has won the fifth unofficial Major – the Players Championships.

Matt has continued his march to the top since the last two years, and like wine has matured with age. He played well but was outplayed by a golf genius and a genial golfing gentleman, always gracious.

Now, the predictions in my article which proceeded on the right lines: the winning score at Royal Birkdale was surprising low but was aided by three days of calm climatic conditions except the second day when only eight scores under par were put in by players;  Fowler again came up short (tied 22) despite playing well and hanging around the leader board as he has done in Majors during the past year.

Cabrera-Bello (tied four at five-under) and Poulter (tied 14 at two-under) were in contention (former on all days except second and latter on first and third) and Cabrera-Bello again showed steadiness, stoical temperament typically needed for winning Majors, and I reiterate he will soon break through; ghosts of missing cuts in Irish and Scottish Opens gripped Rory McElroy when he bogeyed five of first six holes but Rory roared back with four birdies from likely elimination on the first day and then consolidated on the second day by shooting 68 to jump 50 spots and stimulate spectators’ hopes. 

But on the third day after shining on initial holes on, he played erratically to fade, but again roared on fourth day to end tied fourth  at five-under. Dustin dominated in patches on first and third day and so did his friend Brooks Koepka – both brilliant in patches but short on sharpness (perhaps less match practice due to longish layoffs ) in putting and approach shots, especially on par fives on the back nine.

Dustin shot seven-over on fourth day to end at four-over at tied over on day four to end at tied 54, whereas Koepka ended tied six at four-under; Spieth overcame his putting yips to rip the opponents apart and grip the Claret jug; Hideki Matsuyama played well and was on the leader board most of the time till faltering on the fourth day initially but ending at two-under at tied 14th.

He is surely on way to become the first Japanese to win a Major. Sergio Garcia played in patches with  bells ringing in ears for  impending marriage matched after Masters victory (end at tied 37th at two-over); Jason Day showed a brilliant round after fading (ended at tied 27th at one-over); though Fleetwood played with US Open final round partner Koepka but was totally overshadowed by him and one saw only fleeting glances of Fleetwood but he ended at tied 27th at one-over.

Bubba again worked well on the ball flights and trajectory and showed brilliant shots but didn’t put four consistent rounds to contend and ended at tied 27th with at 1-over; and finally seven successive first-time Major victory run ran out of steam with Major winner Spieth stopping the streak.

A turnaround from US Open where both Koepka and Fleetwood dueled on full screen but in the Open one only could see fleeting glances of Fleetwood. Incidentally, in US Open, tall muscular Koepka played with pure physical prowess in powering himself to victory in stark contrast to small framed Fleetwood’s feeble attempts to stop him. In the Open again, he was paired with the shorter, small framed Canadian, Austin Connelly (having Austin Powers in golf), who earned fame in playing beautifully in the third round and ended at tied 14th at 2-under overall.

Prediction didn’t proceed on these lines: Rose didn’t play well and Jon Rahm played well on the first day only to repeat his performance in Majors and needs to build the composure and mental steadiness with his superb skill set. Patrick Reed didn’t make the cut despite promise.

Luck didn’t offer any extension to Stenson as third day rain reined in his brilliant bunker play and the burglary at his temporary local home took his attention away. His ever reliable three wood accurate driving wasn’t sharp and he couldn’t capitalise on opportunities offered by par fives. Yet, he ended at tied 11th at 3-under.

Hole 15 and 17 played as per my prediction: Spieth riding on safety cushion on day two eagled 15 and again eagled on final day, whereas Koepka and Stenson, despite the firepower, couldn’t due to catch-up mindset on most days.

Rory birdied both despite possibilities of eagle on second day and bogeyed and eagled on the final day to end rather well. All this indicated the status of one’s pursuit on back nine and taking or aversion of risks. A genius must have designed the only two par fives (15 and 17) at the Royal Birkdale.

Champions like Rory show time and again the cutting edge capability to come back from the dead – as he did on both second and third day. More than the physics and mechanics, the champions show extra mental edge to dig deeper when drawn into a dogfight.

The newest exponent of this is Jordan Spieth; an example is Hoffman who melted despite having lead in Masters and even in this Open. Great players like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus often displayed this element time and again. In tennis, this capability is ably shown by players like Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer.

Golf, despite being labeled as elitist, gives no privilege for royalty as all the players - from world one to 140 or so - play the first two days on evenly spread situations of morning/evening challenges. On the last two days the precedence and order of play is ordered by performance alone, like Formula One Championships.

Even world number one would have to go out first if he is lying on the bottom of leader board on last two days, unlike tennis where top players are given central arena of centre court. Golf grants no mercies if one doesn’t make a cut – irrespective of the world rankings. Think about that. There is equality of all in a so-called elitist game.

That ends my coverage of the third Major. Will come back with the final one - the PGA.

Also read: 2017 US Open golf champion Brooks Koepka is no Tiger Woods

Writer

Sushil Kumar Sushil Kumar

Film enthusiast and a senior IAS officer

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