By David Zakhodin
After thirteen holes of golf on a windy Sunday in Southport, England, it looked like Jordan Spieth was headed for another collapse on a Major Sunday. After all, how could the back nine on Augusta in 2016 not have been on his mind? Matt Kuchar, the “Top 10 machine” as Dan Hicks referred to him on the broadcast, was surging and looking to continue golf’s most intriguing streak of seven consecutive first-time Major winners. Even the PGA Tour’s Instagram account started having thoughts after Kooch grabbed a one-shot lead at the thirteenth hole.
One can only imagine the demons going through the heads of Jordan Spieth and his caddy Michael Greller as they desperately tried to block out the narrative of “here we go again…” But in individual sports like tennis and golf, we often tend to underestimate the sort of mental fortitude possessed by those at the top of their game. For some, this mental prowess derives from a player’s innate tendency to conjure the “clutch gene” in the face of pressure. For Spieth, however, his mental might is derived from his love for competing.
Love for competing is quite a vague term when it comes to describing professional golfers because naturally they are successful because of their passion for mastering the game. Whether it be competing against a treacherous course, uncertain weather conditions, or the rest of the leaderboard, competition often brings out the best from the sport’s greatest. But in the case of Jordan Spieth, the love for competing was a way for him to rediscover the magic that made him a two-time Major winner and nearly won him his first Open Championship at Saint Andrews. Even two years later, very little has changed. Spieth still owns the best short game on tour and has what it takes to play the sort of golf he played in 2015 on a consistent basis.
So what changed after a dismal 4-over start to the final round of The Open Championship? What stood out was that Spieth never stopped problem solving on the golf course. Sure, he didn’t have it out of the gate and felt the nerves that come with attempting to hold a wire to wire lead at a Major championship. The guy’s human after all. But the way he re-grouped to birdie fourteen and regain a share of the lead was the start of the most spectacular short stretch of golf displayed by anyone all year on the biggest stage. And sure enough, that stretch of golf began with a tremendous display of poise and composure during a 22-minute break between shots in which Spieth was forced to accept a stroke penalty and proactively chose to drop from the driving range to better position himself to at least save bogey.
What followed was nothing short of magic. After Spieth made the remarkable 48-foot eagle on fifteen, it was clear he had no intention of relinquishing the lead a second time around. In a situation when most others would have continued to falter under the pressure of a surging contender in the same pairing, Spieth was able to respond because of how much he cherished being a part of that battle against Kooch. Only a mere month ago we saw Spieth teeing off just after sunrise at the U.S. Open, playing seemingly meaningless golf on the final round of a tournament where he was favored to contend.
Nonetheless, being the competitor that he is, Spieth came clawing back from his disappointing U.S. Open performance. His majestic clinch of The Travelers Championship with a hole-out from the bunker in a playoff against Daniel Berger ignited the momentum that he carried to the links of Royal Birkdale. Just as he took that sudden-death hole out of Berger’s hands, Spieth seized victory from Kooch even as the 39-year-old veteran made two birdies in the last four holes to firmly keep the pressure on. Moreover, the way Spieth closed out his third Major title and first at The Open Championship is a testament to him being one of the transcendent golfers of this generation. In an era where the sport of golf is constantly searching for its signature champion, Jordan Spieth firmly proved that past demons were not going to hold him back from attaining the same level of success he achieved in 2015. Is it a coincidence that his bid for a third Major at Saint Andrews in 2015 was the highest attended Open Championship and that this year’s victory marked the highest attendance at a non-Saint Andrews Open? Probably. But time and time again, Jordan Spieth has demonstrated that his love for competing is not only here to stay but also a source of golf’s greatest moments in recent years.
At age 23, Spieth has joined the one and only Jack Nicklaus in the exclusive club reserved for those who have won three legs of the Grand Slam prior to turning 24. While Spieth will certainly enjoy this moment, rest assured that he will be back in several weeks at Quail Hollow looking to complete the Grand Slam at the PGA Championship.
When he hit the wayward tee shot on thirteen, the last thing on Spieth's mind was hoisting the Claret Jug. However, the greatest of champions always find a way to channel the elusive sense of belief that fuels their love for competing and the tendency to thrive in a moment of adversity. The 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale only confirmed that Jordan Spieth is one of those champions.