World No.3 Jordan Spieth has turned a potential major meltdown into one of the most incredible victories in Open Championship history.
The American held a three-stroke lead over countryman Matt Kuchar heading into the final round, but within the space of 50 minutes of hitting their opening tee shots the pair were level after Spieth bogied three of the first four holes.
Having dominated the top of the leaderboard since day one, Spieth was under serious pressure for the first time in the championship and he must have thought the Golfing Gods were starting to conspire against him. A moment in St Andrews two years ago suddenly crossed his mind as he walked to the 10th tee.
Spieth was sitting in a pub in St Andrews when he was offered a sip of red wine from the Claret Jug to celebrate Zach Johnson’s Open victory. Defying the Golfing Gods, the young Texan took a swig from the famed trophy despite being told it was bad luck to do so.
On Sunday, it appeared – at least for the first 13 holes at Royal Birkdale – that sip of red wine was coming back to haunt him.
The 23-year-old dropped out of the lead for the first time in two days with a bogey on the par-4 13th. If ever there was a good bogey to have this was it.
Having missed the fairway well right into deep rough, he was forced to take an unplayable lie drop, which involved a 20-minute ruling and ultimately saw him playing his third shot from the practice range. As the banter between Spieth, his caddie Michael Greller and rules officials dragged on, memories of his 2016 Masters meltdown, when the then defending champion, blew a five-stroke lead on the back nine Sunday.
But, as he has already shown so many times in his short career, Spieth has a knack for doing the spectacular when it counts. He could easily have finished with a double or triple bogey on 13 but he scratched out a bogey and moved to the next tee with Kuchar leading by one.
Kuchar’s lead was short-lived however. Spieth almost holed his tee shot on the par-3 14th and converted the short birdie putt to draw level with his Ryder Cup team-mate once more.
At the par-5 15th, Spieth saw his second shot crawl onto the putting surface to leave a 45-foot putt for eagle. Kuchar, who had found a fairway bunker off the tee, managed to find the green with his third shot.
Spieth then turned the tournament on its head and hit Kuchar with a sucker punch. He holed his eagle putt to move back to 10 under. A gobsmacked Kuchar couldn’t do anything more than smile and roll in his birdie to stay within a shot.
But Spieth wasn’t finished.
He holed from long range for birdie on the par-4 16th and grabbed another birdie at the 17th. From the time he took the lead on the 13th green, Kuchar had played holes 14 to 17 in two under but Spieth had toweled him up by three shots over the same stretch to secure the Claret Jug.
RIGHT: A determined Spieth heads to the 17th tee after making a long range birdie on 16. PHOTO: Getty Images.
A two-putt par on the 72nd hole put the icing on an extraordinary closing 69 – to go with his 65-69-65 – for a 12 under finish to be three strokes clear of Kuchar, who also carded a one under 69 after a bogey at the last.
Spieth recounted his St Andrews experience moments after being presented with the Claret Jug for the first time.
“This is absolutely a dream come true for me,” Spieth said. “I was able to drink a bit of wine out of this when Zach Johnson won it a couple of years ago and a lot of people told me it was bad luck and I started to believe them through nine holes today. It feels good to have this in my hands.”
Spieth, who turns 24 on Thursday, joins Jack Nicklaus in becoming one of just two players to win three major championship before the age of 24. If he can win the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow next month he will become the youngest ever player to win the career Grand Slam, surpassing Tiger Woods. It is a prospect that has Spieth excited for the challenge.
“It's a life goal of mine. It's a career goal,” Spieth said. “Growing up playing golf, I just wanted to be able to play in major championships and compete with the best in the world, and things have happened very quickly.
“And it's good and bad, because a lot comes with it …. a lot more attention, versus just being able to kind of go about your own thing. I never realised how underrated that was. I wanted to be in this position but then, you know, here and there, it becomes harder when it doesn't go your way and you're harder on yourself because you expect so much.”
“And today could have been … I felt once I lost my lead completely and we were tied, I actually felt the nerves go away for a few holes until I got the lead again. And then they were back and it's just kind of powering through that. You just don't know really what your mind is going to do to you sometimes." – Jordan Spieth
Part of that expectation was to win a third major and he believes this win should bury for good the memories of the 2016 Masters and prove he could close out in a major championship.
“I thought winning a few weeks later (after the Masters in 2016) in Fort Worth was huge,” Spieth said. “But I knew that another major would be the one thing that would, just completely, show I'm capable of closing these majors out.
“I didn't really do much wrong, just hit a couple of bad swings. And all of a sudden it was, in my own head, ‘How could I not close out a five-stroke lead with nine to play?’
“And today could have been … I felt once I lost my lead completely and we were tied, I actually felt the nerves go away for a few holes until I got the lead again. And then they were back and it's just kind of powering through that. You just don't know really what your mind is going to do to you sometimes.
“You can control it to an extent but certain situations are going to bring more tension and you have to kind of channel that the right way, play the right shots. And that was a difficult thing to do today because it was just so up and down.
“Today took as much out of me as any day that I've ever played golf.”
Kuchar was visibly emotional after the final round. In 47 major appearances, the 39-year-old had never gone as close to winning one of the big four.
“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,” Kuchar said.
“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. To be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it's a hard one to sit back and take.
RIGHT: Matt Kuchar sheds a tear after putting out on 18. PHOTO: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
“Thinking with five holes to play, I played the next four in two-under par, however, I lose two shots in those four holes to Jordan.
“So I can only control what I do, how I play. 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.”
China’s Li Haotong finished three shots behind Kuchar in third place after equalling the lowest final round in major history with a closing 63. Rory McIlroy, who was five over through the first six holes of this championship, had a closing three under 67 to finish five under and tied fifth alongside last week’s Scottish Open Champion, Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello.