Jordan Spieth was going to win or lose the 146th Open Championship off the strength or weakness of his mind. His mental game is virtually the only divisive part of his golf game. Some celebrate his cerebralness — the way he talks to himself on the course and seems to be the only person who exists in his world. Others criticize it — he’s too in his own head, unable to let go and move on after a mistake.
We’ve seen it before from Spieth, the inability to pull it together after a disastrous hole. The 12th at Augusta will be linked to Spieth forever after his quadruple bogey there on Sunday of the 2016 Masters turned a one-shot lead into a three-shot deficit that he was unable to overcome. And it looked, for an excruciatingly long 25 minutes on Sunday, like the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale would be the next to haunt him.
After his first shot on the par-4 13th sailed wide to the right, well away from the fairway, Spieth stood atop a large dune, staring out at the green in the distance. The co-leader of the Open Championship at the time stood alongside caddie Michael Greller deciding what to do about his second shot. The debate was whether to try to play the ball, which was buried in the rough behind the hill Spieth was standing on, or to take an unplayable lie.
It looked as though Spieth’s head was literally in the clouds. Surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, he paced up and down the back of the dune trying to get the yardage and the angle and the lay. He looked lost.
After debating for what seemed like an eternity, he and Greller decided to go for the unplayable lie, which only made the situation more chaotic. Spieth’s drop zone was out near the practice range and a handful of trailers (free Titleist advertising!), and it looked for a moment like we’d be getting a real-life, major tournament reenactment of Happy Gilmore’s TV tower shot. It was a “circus,” as one announcer described it when the cameras flipped back to Spieth.
It took so long for him to play his second shot — 20 minutes between the tee shot and when he finally dropped the ball for his second — that his playing partner, Matt Kuchar, played his shot from the fairway ahead of Spieth. Then Kuchar casually took a knee in the middle of the fairway, waiting with the rest of us. Finally, Spieth took his swing. He hit the ball out close to the fairway and managed to turn a bogey-5. It’s rare that a bogey sets off a positive chain reaction for a player, but, after salvaging a would-be meltdown, that’s exactly what it did for Spieth.
His first shot on the next hole, the par-3 14th, was inches away from being a hole-in-one. He then birdied it to retake a share of the lead. Then he got to the green in two on the par-5 15th, and drained a long eagle putt to take sole possession of the lead, forever trademarking the phrase “Go get that” in the process.
As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted, it took the same amount of time for Spieth to make a drop on 13 as it did for him to go minus-3 over the next two holes.
He’d record back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17, and after a par on 18, Jordan Spieth won the Open Championship and became the second-youngest player to win three separate major tournaments, behind only Jack Nicklaus.
Spieth started off the tournament with three near-perfect days: He had bogey-free rounds of 65 on Thursday and Saturday, and even though his Friday wasn’t quite as clean, he managed to finish the day under par. When he started three strokes ahead on Sunday, it looked as though he’d saved up all the bad shots he didn’t hit throughout the first three rounds and unleashed them all at the beginning of the day. He bogeyed three out of the first four holes — uncharacteristically missing two makeable putts — and was three-over par on the front nine. With Kuchar playing even through the front, it looked like the 39-year-old could steal the tournament just by being steady.
But after Spieth turned potential disaster into a birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie tear, Kuchar couldn’t keep up. Spieth went five-under in four holes, and Kuchar’s lone two birdies on the back nine weren’t enough.
Spieth’s mental comeback was breathtaking, evoking tones of Sergio García’s Masters win from April. Spieth hasn’t had a long, disappointing history in major tournaments like Sergio, but it was the same type of win — one that forced him to stare down a bad memory (or in García’s case, multiple bad major memories) and push past it.
The Open ends the streak of first-time major tournament winners at seven — the second-longest streak of its kind in golf’s history — and, if Spieth keeps playing like he did this weekend, we may not see another streak like that for a while. Earlier this week he was asked (as all golfers inevitably are these days) about the possibility of a New Tiger, someone emerging from the crowded field of competitors to dominate a sport that has felt wide open for a few years now.
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Spieth said. “What Tiger’s done … having experienced a year like he continued to do for years, it just takes a lot out of you. It’s very tough to do. …What I’m saying is, I doubt you’ll see a dominance like that, maybe ever again in the game.”
Spieth isn’t where Tiger was at his prime, and as he said, we may never again see someone with that combination of emotional drive, physical ability, and unique talent for the game. But as Spieth sat on a bunker Sunday afternoon and held his third major tournament trophy up for photos, he looked ready to start his own kind of reign in the golf world — not one of victory screams or red-shirted Sundays, but the quiet mental toughness to turn a bad hole into four good ones.