The mark of a great champion isn’t merely an ability to win, but the ability to overcome adversity. With his victory on Sunday at the Open, Justin Spieth displayed that ability in abundance.
Spieth’s victory comes 15 months after his calamitous loss at the Masters where he squandered a 5 shot lead, which involved a disastrous quad bogey at the infamous 12th. Some speculated that loss may do irreversible damage to his psyche and that he would struggle to fully recover. And indeed, it looked like the crushing defeat took its toll because in the following majors Spieth looked deprived of that killer instinct that had become so distinctive. But as we remarked back then, Spieth has all the attributes of a champion and it would only be a matter of time before he bounced back.
The signs coming into the championship were auspicious. Just three weeks ago he won The Travelers championship in memorable fashion by holing a bunker shot in the playoff, the second time he has achieved such a feat. But even such a great win couldn’t be a true gauge for just how well Spieth would cope under intense pressure at one of the most coveted tournaments in golf.
For the first three rounds Spieth played near faultless golf, recording only four bogeys. It led many to believe the final round would be a coronation with Spieth coasting to victory. But it proved anything but with Spieth getting off to an inauspicious start by bogeying three of the first four holes. The magic we’d come to expect from Spieth’s putter abandoned him, he was rattled and suddenly looked like any other golf exhibiting vulnerabilities on the greens in a final round of a major championship.
The catalyst for his miraculous recovery would prove to be one of the worst golf shots he’s ever hit. On the 13th tee he launched a drive so errant it was 120 yards off line, on a steep mound buried in rough so thick it meant he would have to take an unplayable lie. Speith was visibly shaken by his egregious tee shot, putting his hands on his head, an indication of the predicament he thought he would find himself in. But the golf gods were shining on Spieth, not only was his ball found by spectators but he could take an unplayable lie which meant he could hit his third shot from short grass and possibly salvage a bogey. His third shot wasn’t struck perfectly but it left his ball in a position where it was possible to get up and down. He pitched to 10ft and his tournament arguably hinged on that putt. Miss and he would face a deficit of two shots with all momentum gone, make it and suddenly the hole which looked like ending Spieth’s championship would become the one which made it. He made the putt and salvaged the most improbable of bogeys, one that would make Houdini proud.
From that moment onwards Spieth’s whole demeanour changed. Suddenly his killer instincts which deserted him for most of the round returned in stunning fashion: A gorgeous tee shot led to a birdie on the following hole to tie him for the lead, and then a sensational 50ft eagle putt on the next returned him to the top of the leaderboard. For good measure he birdied the next two as well to complete one of the greatest finishes to a major tournament in golfing history, leaving fans marvelling in awe.
Matt Kuchar was Spieth’s opponent and a worthy one at that. He barely put a foot wrong all day, and his class endeared him to the galleries. For journeymen golfers like Kuchar, opportunities to win majors are not dime a dozen so he will understandably be crushed to lose in those circumstances. But hopefully his defeat will motivate him to keep plugging away, and perhaps he will taste major success in the future.
But this was a day that belonged to Jordan Spieth, a victory which now puts him into the category of all time greats. What happened at Augusta in 2016 is now firmly in the rear view mirror and his sights will now turn to winning the career grand slam, a feat he could achieve in three weeks time. Spieth has his doubters, but surely they must admit what he accomplished on Sunday at Birkdale was mightily impressive.