It wasn’t the 63 with which he clinched the title at the Australian Club one year ago, but Jordan Spieth wasn’t too unhappy after opening with an even-par 71 in defense of his Australian Open crown. In blustery conditions reminiscent of those he mastered so beautifully in 2014, the Masters and US Open champion made three birdies and three bogeys in what he called “pretty boring golf.”
That was a harsh assessment, however. Although the 22-year old Texan fell back from two-under par at the turn (he played the back-nine first) – “that was disappointing” – there were still more than enough hints of the top-class golf he has played since lifting the Stonehaven Cup 12 months ago.
Only hints though. On this day it was sometimes difficult to tell just what sets Spieth apart from the vast majority of his competition. Even an initial glance at Rory McIlroy and Jason Day is enough to discern their obvious quality, but with the third member of what has become the modern “big-three” it is more difficult. Spieth’s game requires further study. His is a style in which the intangibles are as important as his ability to hit fairways and greens, or get up-and-down.
“I’ve never seen a player prepare better to hit a shot than Jordan,” says former USPGA champion Wayne Grady, now a commentator on Channel 7. “His focus is so minute, so exact. He reminds me of a darts player in the way he homes in on his target.”
Indeed, that was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the game on the opening day of the 100th Australian Open.
“We played a lot of those holes in side-winds,” said Spieth. “It was just a guessing game really. And when you bring hazards into play it makes things even harder. It’s been a while since I’ve played in wind like this. The toughest part is deciding what shot to hit. It’s hard to pick the shot. You can use the same club and end up with a 30-yards difference based on if you hold the ball up or ride the wind.”
Which is not to say that Spieth was entirely happy with aspects of his game. Known for his propensity for vocal reactions to less than perfect shots – “sit down ball” was his loud verdict on a wayward tee-shot at the short 4th – the world number one didn’t let down his fans, young or old.
“I hit two fairways on the back-nine,” he sighed. “Even though conditions were tough, I could have driven the ball better. Or I could have taken less club to makes sure I found the fairway. So decision-making was definitely a challenge.”
Nowhere was that more obvious than on Speith’s final hole, the par-4 9th. Along with playing partners Lee Westwood and Geoff Ogilvy, the world number one was defeated by the swirling currents that swept either down or up the hole, depending on when each decided to pull the trigger.
“That last hole was really tough,” said Spieth. “I just didn’t know what to hit. And I ended up two clubs off, thinking the wind was helping when it was actually hurting. Lee and Geoff had the some trouble. We just had no idea. But I still should have made par. If you give me 100 balls, I’ll get down in two 95 times from where I was (maybe ten yards short of the putting surface). It was a brain-fart there.”
Still, for all his travails, Spieth wasn’t short of support in this foreign land. Followed by a large, sign-carrying group of youngsters from something called the “Sutherland Shire Golf Academy” – “Go Jordan Spieth” was their collective message – it was nice to see the defending champion acknowledge their presence at every opportunity. Unlike some others best left nameless, this is one great golfer who gets it.