A final round full of drama, punches, counter-punches, a tale of mental fortitude and a putter moving from ice cold to red hot headlined the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale. And just like that Jordan Spieth continued the adage "Spieth does Spieth things". Spieth brought in a roller-coaster 69 to clinch 'Champion Golfer of the Year' — the magic five words that are every golfer's childhood and adult dream.
With this win, Spieth captured the third leg of a potential career Grand Slam. This was his 19th major and only the great Jack Nicklaus took less starts to win his third major — Nicklaus needed 16. Spieth, like Nicklaus, has won his third major at the age of 23. Tiger Woods was 24 when he won his third major.
After the first three rounds it was clear that this was Spieth's tournament to lose. His masterful iron play and distance control had clearly placed him in a position to control the outcome, the only detail that left a crack in the window open was the inconsistent putter. Spieth's putter aside, it was felt that his closest overnight pursuer, Matt Kuchar would need to shoot a 65 at worst to have any chance to win this championship.
With the dark shadows of his epic meltdown 15 months ago at the Masters still lurking, Spieth has made it absolutely clear in his interview with the media that "to close the deal he needed to control his emotions and stay neutral in his head". As it turned out, on the very first hole Spieth's tee ball found the gorse and he lost his cool.
Neither Spieth nor Kuchar made life easy for themselves with both making shaky starts, with Spieth being worse for the wear making four bogies and just one birdie on the outward nine against Kuchar's two birdies and bogies apiece. With the overnight three-shot advantage gone and both players sitting at -8 for the championship, news got in that Chinese phenom Li Haotong had shot a 63 and charged up the leaderboard to sit in third place at -6.
Haotong, a 21-year-year old who turned professional at 15, played the final round with former two-time Open champion Ernie Els and made seven straight pars followed by seven birdies in his last 11 holes. This completely changed the complexion as both Spieth and Kuchar hung on scrambling for pars over the next few holes.
On the back of an unlikely scenario of the leaders continuing to drop shots, and Haotong sitting comfortably in the club house having teed off over three hours before the leaders, the rest of the pack that had found themselves more of less out of the hunt the night before and the front nine sniffed blood and started pushing up the leaderboard.
Mercurial Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was the first to make his presence felt and crashed the party with quick birdies on the 9th and 11th holes before a bogey on the 15th hole — a par 5 seemingly derailed him. McIlroy continued to press and promptly eagled the 17th hole to move up to -5 and needed desperately to birdie the 18th to match Haotong's clubhouse score.
McIlroy parred his final hole and ended the event tied for fourth place. At this point one could not help but wonder, "what if McIlroy hadn't started so poorly playing his first six holes on the opening day in 5-over par?"
Not to be outdone, right behind McIlroy arrived last week's Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, who staked his claim with back nine birdies on the 12th and 17th holes to also move up to -5. Just like McIlroy, he was unable to birdie the closing hole and concluded his championship at -5 leaving Haotong the clubhouse leader, who by then had moved to the driving range to limber up in the event of a playoff.
In the meantime the Spieth-Kuchar drama had reached its high point with Spieth shoving his drive on the 13th hole a full 70 yards right of the fairway into a cluster of spectators with the ball disappearing in to the heavy rough. A magical search ensued and the golf ball was located in an unplayable lie. Spieth elected to take a penalty drop on the driving range, within view of Haotong and a few metres away from the parked equipment manufacturer trailers.
Twenty-five minutes and a remarkable bogey later, Spieth has relinquished the lead to Kuchar for the first time in the tournament. Classy as Spieth is, in his victory speech he ensured to thank Kuchar for his patience on the 13th green and waiting patiently while Spieth searched for his ball in the fairway and weighed his penalty drop options before play resumed.
What followed hereafter was inexplicable — Spieth almost holed his tee shot on the 14th hole par 3 to get level with Kuchar, who made par. On the next hole a par 5, Kuchar chipped to a foot to leave himself a tap in birdie; Spieth who had hit the green in two, proceeded to roll in a 60-foot putt for eagle to leave Kuchar behind by one stroke.
Moving to the 16th hole, a par 4, the putter continued to remain hot, and Spieth rolled in another bomb for a birdie to pull two shots clear of Kuchar. On the 17th hole, Kuchar made birdie first, Spieth followed him in with his own — it was still advantage Spieth by two shots going to the 72nd hole of the 146th Open. Kuchar played holes 14 to 17 in 2 under par and lost ground to Spieth by three shots. Spieth's miraculous recovery almost made it seem like Kuchar was up against Harry Potter.
This was the 39-year-old Kuchar's best finish in a major championship and I have no doubt he will be scratching hid head, wondering what he could have done differently — frankly not a whole lot. He played well and built a solid round to stay in the hunt for his maiden major title, but as with all great players, it was Spieth that controlled his destiny and the eventual outcome.
Englishman Alfie Plant took home the silver medal for low amateur honors. Plant shot a closing 73 for a four-round total score of six-over par 286.
Branden Grace of South Africa, who made headlines world over, learnt very quickly the difference 24 hours can make. On Saturday, he shot a 62 that included eight birdies but on Sunday, he registered the first of his two birdies on the 10th hole. Grace limped home with an even par 70 to finish tied for sixth place at -4 with US Open champion Brooks Koepka, Alex Noren of Sweden, Englishman Matthew Southgate and Australian Marc Leishman, who had lost in a three-man playoff for The Open in 2015 at St Andrews.
Other notable scores: Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson -3/T11; Austin Connelly, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Ian Poulter and Hideki Matsuyama -2/T14; Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott E/T22; Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Thongchai Jaidee and Lee Westwood +1/T27; Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Webb Simpson and Steve Stricker +2/T37; Jon Rahm, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Peter Uihlein +3/T44; Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Jimmy Walker +4/T54; Ernie Els +5/61 and Danny Willet +9/76.
Googly of the day: Of course, 21-year-old Haotong shot a bogey-free 63 to further shake up a leaderboard reeling under the volatility of the poor play by the leading group. He shot to fame winning the 2016 Volvo China Open, represented China at the Rio Olympics and has won several titles on the PGA Tour of China. He's off to the Masters next year.
Spieth-Greller bromance part 1: Championship winner thanked his caddy Michael Greller in his speech saying this victory was 50 percent 'Mikey's'. In another swift kick by a caddy to a players backside, on the first hole itself, Spieth lost his cool seeing his opening drive come to rest in gorse "This is crap man, not getting rewarded for a good shot," Spieth grumbled. Grillers response: "168 yards front, Get over it"
Spieth-Greller bromance part 2: Greller to Spieth at some point "Dude, you're a closer. You know how to close this. You have the killer instinct." We know Spieth went on a tear from the 14th to 17th in 5 under par to surge two in to the lead.
Other Spieth milestones: He will check in on Monday morning on the OWGR at No 2. This was the first time Spieth has shot in the 60's in all four rounds of a major and is the sixth player in British Open history to record a wire-to-wire victory.
Burn of the day: At 6'5, Els admitted he had trouble playing the wind. He felt it was getting to him and blowing him around. The same question in reference to Els' response was asked to diminutive Canadian golfer Connelly. He responded, "I got asked that question a second ago, if it helped being shorter? But since I haven't ever been taller, I cannot really comment."
Last irrelevant statistic of the week: Royal Birkdale set the weekly attendance record for an Open outside of St Andrews with 235,000 visitors this week. The previous record belonged to Royal Liverpool in 2006 when 232,000 visitors attended and a certain Woods won. The record at St Andrews stands at 239,000 visitors in 2000, won again by Woods.
Burglary of the week update: Stenson's gear still remains at large. The Iceman voluntarily informed the curious media, "I'm pleased to inform you that the last two days have been good, nothing further has been lost or stolen."
The author is a golfer who represented India from 1988 to 1991 and captained the West Zone from 1996 to 2001
Published Date: Jul 24, 2017 10:22 AM | Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 07:22 AM