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How Jordan Spieth Staved Off Disaster and Won the Open Championship

Geoff Shackelford and Joe House break down what exactly happened on Sunday at Royal Birkdale’s 13th hole

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Rules in golf can be … complicated, to say the least. And more often than not, when we’re discussing them it’s because a golfer or the officials messed them up, not because they were enforced correctly. But Sunday at the 146th Open Championship, Jordan Spieth wisely used the rules to his advantage on the 13th hole, and saved bogey on a hole that potentially could have cost him a major tournament victory. Geoff Shackelford was on the ground at Royal Birkdale, and he and Joe House discussed Spieth’s decision to take an unplayable lie on the latest episode of the ShackHouse podcast.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Joe House: I saw you out there on the hill on [the 13th hole], on the hill, eyeballs on Jordan Spieth’s ball. …Tell the people, how are you feeling, Shack?

Geoff Shackelford: I’m tired, but what I can’t get over is [that] Jordan Spieth ran up and down that dune, I think three or four times. And he runs up the dune, which is nuts. It was raining a little bit, it was wet, it was slippery. [Spieth’s caddie] Michael Greller had the bag and he’s tiptoeing up the thing, but Jordan just sprints up it. I was exhausted watching him do it.

But it was the craziest scene that I think I’ve really ever witnessed in person, starting with the tee shot on 13. … [Spieth] hit a nice shot on 12, which was a beautiful par 3. … And then on 13 he just ballooned it right, and they had us, the press, stand back on a dune that’ll probably be a tee the next time they come [to Royal Birkdale]. It was into the wind and brutal — just a beautiful hole, though. … And [after Spieth’s first shot] I said, "That’s on the top of the dune!" And then you saw this [spectator] just go down and … he got hit in the head, it turns out. … So I walked down the right side [of the hole] with a bunch of people and sure enough there [the ball] was, down the hill. But I first went up the side, and Spieth started looking for it and everybody was trying to convince him it was over on the other side of the dune. For whatever reason, off the tee, I just don’t think he saw that or believed it. It was kind of peculiar. It is easy to lose sight of the ball out here, for sure. There’s no question that it is gray skies and all that. And then from there it was just surreal.

House: Well, [Spieth] expressed some incredulity at the idea that it had hit somebody in the head and bounced to the backside of the dune. … After the tournament was over, [Golf Channel] had Todd [Louis] out on the driving range with an R&A rules official, and they had a yellow tee down at the actual divot that Jordan [made]. But they went through a very deliberate and well-conceived walkthrough of the rule’s options and why the trucks were in play and the choices that Jordan made. At the end of it, everything made sense, and the guys in the booth properly gave Jordan credit for having his wits about him and for understanding the rules well enough to sort of map it all out. He obviously had great assistance from the rules officials there on the ground. But … the amount of time it took to get to where he could actually play a shot — and what that meant for [Matt] Kuchar — it took easily 20 minutes. I think it took more than 20 minutes. And I’m sitting here watching this — it could’ve taken 30 minutes. And that’s a long time to ask your playing competitor, with the tournament on the line, to sit and watch …

Shackelford: I’ve never seen one take this long. It was an eternity and [Spieth] apologized to Kuchar both when he got up to the green before he hit his chip and then as they walked off the green. … The one mistake I made down there was I did not look at my watch …

House: Was it clearly unplayable?

Shackelford: No, no. It was just a horrible lie, and the steepness of the dune made it such that — he could’ve taken a swipe at it, but he might’ve hurt himself, he might’ve slipped. And he might not have gotten it back to the fairway. But here’s where he’s just on another level, House — and he joked about it a little bit in the post-round press conference, that he’s had enough experience with unplayable lies and moon ball drives that he knows — he was never thinking about trying to hit that recovery shot. I’m standing there looking at it going, "Well, this’ll be fun to watch."

He immediately, from the moment he saw where it was, started looking back toward the range, toward the tour vans. It was in his mind all along to use the rules to his advantage. He knew exactly what he was doing — he was going to go as far back as he wanted, and that would take him right into the middle of these tour vans, these tour trucks … and then he knew he’d get a drop from there. It just took a long time to kind of figure out the alignment and all that, and it was brutal for Kuchar. He hit a great second shot, but he had a lot of time. And Spieth did not drag this out on purpose. It was chaos …

House: People had to be moved. They had to move the spectators, right?

Shackelford: He first had to move the people to see if he could take a drop at the base of the dune, and then realized that wasn’t possible … it was a surreal little scene. … But the hilarious thing was on the range — he’s moving back and forth, trying to find the spot to take the unplayable drop, and the photographers were kind of like a little swarm of blackbirds behind him, just kind of moving with him, and then he finally finds the spot, he takes the ceremonial drop, and then from there the official could declare that he had a temporary movable obstruction in his way.

He moved over to the spot, and the question I wanted to ask in the press conference … [was], do you think they should put a plaque out there? Because they have an Arnold Palmer plaque; should this join the Birkdale history? I think they should. It is in the middle of the range, so the only people to really enjoy it are the guys in the range picker, but it was surreal to see him do all this, and then in hindsight realize he did this with full clarity. He used the rules to his advantage — there was nothing nefarious about it. It was exactly what the rules allowed for, and I am just so impressed beyond words at his ability …

And it wasn’t like he was playing well and now, "OK, well, now I’ve gotta deal with this." He was trending horribly. … I don’t know what Johnny [Miller] was saying on the broadcast, but I’m sure he was talking about the pressure and the demons and the things that had to be going through Spieth’s mind. And so to have that mental clarity — it’s one of the things that makes golf so special … Bob Harig asked afterward, what did [Spieth] do to kind of reset himself, because it was just chaotic, and then he makes a great up-and-down. And the cool thing — he’s walking off the [13th] green, and as he turned to Greller, and he hands him the putter, sticks the putter out, he just briefly flashes a mischievous little grin. And you just [had to have] happened to be looking, and he did not want to be enjoying this moment too much, but it just … you knew at that moment, he knew he had just pulled off — I think it’s the greatest bogey in modern major history.