Date: July 24, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: A mystery wrapped in a champion

The Open champion Jordan Spieth’s golf is somehow polarising, yet he is the most fascinating of players to observe and wonder how he so successfully plays the game.

In almost all the greats – and anyone so young and with three legs of a Grand Slam is quickly approaching greatness – there is something obvious about their play stamping them a level above the rest.

Ben Hogan had the great precision coming from a machine-like method and his great contemporary Sam Snead showed off his elegant swing and effortless power for decades. Jack Nicklaus, too, had great power and technique, combined with a first-class putter and mind.

Ernie Els was a modern-day Snead and Tiger Woods was everything Nicklaus was and, arguably, even a little more.

Spieth, on the other hand, has a swing critics could pick “faults” in and no one will ever ascribe it the aesthetic values of Snead, Els or Adam Scott. He is long enough, but far from the most powerful of his generation and, as Frank Nobilo said on television this week, “This will come out the wrong way, but he makes some of the crappiest pars”.

We watch and wonder how he gets it done time after time, yet were unsurprised when he collapsed at Augusta last year, throwing away what was surely the safest of leads by chunking a sleeve of balls into Rae’s Creek.

So it was at Royal Birkdale and we saw both the vulnerability and then the invincibility of Spieth on the same day.

Understandably nervous, he hooked short and left off the first tee into a horrible spot and a bogey was a good result. He hooked again off the second tee and it was a portent of things to come and, by the end, he had found the short grass from the tee only twice.

His fellow Texan Hogan would have been utterly mystified by the whole thing.

Spieth’s competitor Matt Kuchar, who had never really threatened to win a major championship despite many years as one of the most solid players on the tour, played an extraordinary mid-iron from a horrible angle at the second, tapped in for a birdie and the three-shot lead was down to one.

The third, not a particularly difficult par four, offered up more Spieth vulnerability. His iron missed the fairway, the second was long and after putting down six feet away, he never got the putt anywhere near the right line.

He retained the lead only because Kuchar made his own messy bogey from the sand.

The next is a long three and after coming up miles short of the flag, Spieth surrendered the remainder of his advantage with three putts. Not only was his hitting way off, but the putter was betraying him and at the same time Li Haotong, the fine young Chinese player, hit a brilliant iron into the 18th and tapped in for 63 and 274.

It left Kuchar and Spieth needing to play the rest of the way in one over par to beat him and at that point it was no sure thing.

Li knew it, too, and retreated to the range to keep his swing ready for the possibility of a playoff.

A birdie at the fifth steadied Spieth and they ground through the rest of the front side until the ninth green. Kuchar, as he had at the second hole, drove to the “wrong side” of the hole, but hit a brilliant iron within eight feet of the pin in the front right corner of the green.

Spieth from the left rough – again – pitched 20 feet past and after Kuchar holed for the birdie, he missed the second putt straight up the hill from four feet.

All square with the back nine left and one bogey each to play with to beat Li.

With evening, weather and pressure closing in, it was something at least to consider.

It got more desperate for Spieth at the 11th. He finally hit the fairway and then pulled an awful, fat, 5-iron into the gallery. It was his fortune they had flattened the long grass on the bank and he was able to scrape out another of Nobilo’s “crappy pars” to stay tied with his compatriot.

Pars at the 12th were followed, obviously, by the 13th – a long par four which took them a full 30 minutes to play and Kuchar didn’t hit a shot for almost 20 of them.

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Spieth drove so far right he made Ballesteros’ tee shot into the car park at Lytham in 1979 look straight and, after much messing about, he finally took an unplayable lie and dropped back onto the practice fairway a full 240m from the green.

With not much of an idea which part of the huge dune ahead he had to fly over, he hit a terrific shot, 30m short of the green and with Kuchar’s par a certainty after a fine second shot, Spieth pitched to eight feet and holed to fall one behind.

It was a bogey, but it was one of the better bogeys in the Open’s history.

Li, from his place on the range, had watched it all and there was only encouragement for him.

This was also Kuchar’s opportunity and he played the next four holes almost faultlessly in par, birdie, par and birdie.

If you needed any convincing of Spieth’s talent, that he soon stood on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead was surely enough.

He all but holed his tee shot at the difficult par-three 14th, hit two long shots on to the par-five 15th and holed from 60 feet for an eagle, then followed it with the killer blow; a 25-footer for the birdie at the 16th.

Two ahead now, he blew a drive, in the fashion of Ballesteros at Lytham, far to the right off the 17th tee. Kuchar went left into a similarly horrid lie and both hacked up the fairway and left themselves mid-length pitch shots to the flag.

Kuchar went past by 20 feet and Spieth too was long but by half the distance.

With no option left other than to hole his putt, Kuchar did, leaving Spieth to make his 10-footer to keep his two-shot advantage.

Here was a putt the same as those he couldn’t hole at the beginning of the day but with the pressure even greater, he ran his ball straight into the middle of the hole.

The only way to lose now was to drive out of bounds and wisely he chose the 3-iron and it almost caught the fairway on the right. His long second found the green, Kuchar missed and Spieth goes to the US PGA next month with a chance to join Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods as winners of all four of the major championships.

It’s rarified air up there and, like Rory McIlroy, he is just a step away. McIlroy’s quest continues at Augusta and the question is which of them gets there first.

McIlroy looks the obvious choice, because at his best he is the best of this generation.

But Spieth showed something extraordinary from the 14th tee to the finish and his play transformed a championship that would have been quickly lost in history into one of the more memorable Opens.