Jordan Spieth staged one of the great rebounds in a final round at a major championship when defeating Matt Kuchar with a stunning performance over the last five holes at Royal Birkdale to land the 146th Open Championship.
A birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie-par finish to his closing round of 69 in the rain at Southport provided a stunning response to a near disaster at the 13th hole when a sliced tee shot to the wrong side of a giant dune forced him to take a penalty drop between two club manufacturers’ trucks on the practice ground more than 100 yards right of the fairway. The ensuing shot was even further right along the line of sight, but Spieth’s rescue act was to prove the start of a remarkable closing phase of this most compelling final day.
It had started with Spieth holding a healthy three-shot lead over fellow American Kuchar, and it would have come as no surprise to see the Texan’s name being etched onto the plinth of the famous auld Claret Jug in the Lancashire twilight. Yet what transpired was four hours of the most gripping golf and unimaginable drama in which the 23-year-old Spieth needed one of his finest 18 holes to complete the third leg of a career grand slam of major wins that only Jack Nicklaus had achieved by an earlier age.
That was all a bonus to the 51,000 at the famous links yesterday, the highest ever single day attendance at The Open in an English-record 235,000 total figure, with only St Andrews attracting more spectators, in 2000 and 2015.
They had come to Birkdale expecting a procession every bit the formality Tour de France champion-elect Chris Froome was experiencing during the great race’s final stage on the Champs-Élysées over in Paris. What they got was something very different indeed.
It was coming up to 5pm yesterday when the R&A announced the four holes to be played in the event of a play-off at the 146th Open Championship.
Li Haotong was sitting pretty in the clubhouse at six under par following the day’s low round of 63 and dreaming of becoming not just China’s but Asia’s first male major champion as Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar were locked in a duel out on the course just two shots ahead of the 22-year-old with seven holes to play.
But the drama was only just about to start. Spieth’s commanding lead had disintegrated early in his round with three dropped shots in his opening four holes and the young man who had let slip the 2016 Masters title with a quadruple bogey at Augusta National’s par-three 12th suddenly looked vulnerable all over again, as Kuchar parred the fourth to meet his rival in the joint lead at eight under.
When they reached the par-four 13th, they were once again locked together at the same mark, Spieth having ground out some valuable pars to keep Kuchar pegged in increasingly challenging conditions as the wind got up and rain started to fall.
“We are going to skip the first 12 holes, right?” joked Spieth, as he opened his champion’s press conference last night.
“Seventeen pars and a birdie would have been fine, too. But there’s a lot of roads to get there.
“Showed some resiliency and give a lot of credit to my guy on the bag (Mike Greller) for that. Because as you can imagine, thoughts come in from my last scenario when I was leading a major on Sunday. And never mentioned it, but all of a sudden it creeps into your head. I was so confident and all of a sudden, the wheels have kind of come off everything. And how do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end. It took a bogey to do so.”
That Spieth escaped his near-calamity at 13 with only a bogey on a hole that took 30 minutes to complete as he conferred with rules officials, who resorted to GPS location-finding technology to establish his line of sight, was a testament to the Texan’s remarkable resilience. His blind three iron from the practice ground landed just short of the green for an excellent bogey in the circumstances, and his deeds over the holes that followed and which delivered the third major title of his career following victories at the 2015 Masters and US Open five days shy of his 24th birthday mark him out as one of the toughest major champions in the history of the sport.
“That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced as a caddie,” Spieth’s bagman Mike Greller said. “I certainly didn’t have any numbers from the right side of the range! I was looking at that gorse and we ended up playing about a 245 (yard) shot.
“It was on a great line and from there he just did what he always does — he just grinds.”
Spare a thought for Kuchar, who barely put a foot wrong over those closing holes. After being made to wait all that time to complete the 13th he had only been able to par the hole, but he moved in front by a stroke and his birdies at the par-five 15th and 17th holes maintained the pressure on Spieth to the end. Only trouble was that Spieth bettered the 39-year-old on four of the last five holes and matched him on the other in a superb display of guts and shot execution.
Spieth nearly aced the par-three 14th but birdied nevertheless to complete a remarkable couple of holes in level par and when Kuchar birdied the par-five 15th, Spieth regained the lead with an imperious eagle putt, his calm response amid the uproar he had caused simply an outstretched finger in the direction of the hole and a mouthed instruction to Greller to collect the ball from the cup.
It only heightened the sense of drama. Birdies followed at 16 and 17 and Spieth went to the last with a two-shot lead as Kuchar finally cracked, bogeying the 72nd hole as the oldest major was completed with a par for the latest Champion Golfer of the year.
And what a champion. It had been the first time in his still fledgling career as a pro that he had opened a major championship with three rounds in the 60s (65-69-65) and after his closing 69 he became the fifth player to win The Open with four sub-70 rounds following Greg Norman (1983), Nick Price (1994), Tiger Woods (2000), and last year’s winner Henrik Stenson.
It also buried the ghosts of the 2016 Masters, which may now shift onto the broad shoulders of the still major-less Kuchar.
In defeat, he lived up to his reputation as one of golf’s true gentlemen. When asked to describe his emotions from such a pressure-filled day, the 39-year-old said: “It’s hard to explain.
“It’s crushing. It hurts. And it’s an excitement and a thrill to have played well, put up a battle, put up a fight.
“You work so hard to get to this position. And to have a chance to make history and win a championship. You don’t get that many opportunities. And to be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it’s a hard one to sit back and take.
“Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way in the finishing stretch today. It was impressive stuff when a guy does something like that. All you can really do is sit back, tip your cap and say, “well done.”
“And it was certainly a show that he put on.”
With three legs of the grand slam now in the bag, Spieth heads back to the USA with his sights firmly set on the PGA Championship and completing the set at Quail Hollow. And after a performance like this one at Royal Birkdale, who would bet against him?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved