They dubbed Seve Ballesteros the “car park champion” after he became an Open winner for the first time at Royal Lytham in 1979. On that basis, Jordan Spieth will be remembered as the “practice ground champion” for the way the young American got his hands on the Claret Jug for the first time a few miles down the Lancashire coast at Royal Birkdale.
Helped by a recovery from the practice area, having found himself playing his third shot from there following a wild drive at the 13th hole, the 23-year-old turned a potential major meltdown, having already allowed a second Masters win slip from his grasp, into a memorable title triumph.
Three ahead at the start of the day, a misfiring Spieth found himself a shot behind playing partner Matt Kuchar with five holes to play before covering that closing stretch in a sensational five-under, sparking that run by almost holing his tee shot at the 14th before rolling in a 45-foot eagle putt at the next.
It was the best closing five holes in Open Championship history, surpassing Henrik Stenson’s four-under at Royal Troon 12 months earlier, and gave Spieth a closing 69 for a 12-under-par 268 total, winning by three shots from Kuchar (69), with China’s Haotong Li closing with a best-of-the-day 63 to finish third on six-under, a shot ahead of both Rory McIlroy (67) and Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello (68).
“We are going to skip the first 12 holes, right?” joked Spieth in the winner’s press conference. “Boy, this was eventful. There’s a lot of roads to get there and 17 pars and a birdie would have been fine, too. But I was put in a tough one early on [after dropping three shots in the first four holes].”
That start brought back memories of his Masters meltdown in 2016 and, as he reflected on eventually coming out with the right result on this occasion, the 23-year-old admitted his 5 from the practice range had been every bit as important as the fireworks that followed over the final few holes. “The putt on 13 was just massive as it stopped me from falling two shots behind,” admitted Spieth.
“I was walking off the green and Michael [his caddie] said, ‘that’s a momentum shift right there’. And he was dead on.”
Spieth’s struggles started straight away. His opening drive missed the fairway and found a claggy lie, from where he had no chance of getting to the green. The resultant bogey was almost inevitable. What we didn’t expect, though, was seeing the American soon starting to have a nightmare with his putter, especially after it had behaved impeccably over the first three days.
He was unable to convert a seven-footer at the second after Kuchar had plonked his approach no more than a foot from the hole. Spieth then missed from four feet at the third after sending his second through the back, the only consolation for him there being that Kuchar also took 5 after finding a greenside bunker with his second despite having a great angle in.
In fairness to him, Kuchar made amends for that by getting up and down when faced with a much more difficult bunker shot at the 199-yard fourth, where the duo walked off the green tied for the lead after Spieth three-putted from long range after leaving his first attempt woefully short. It was just the tonic he needed when Spieth rolled in a six-footer for birdie at the fifth, edging him in front again, and that lead quickly became two. Neither player hit good drives at the sixth, a 499-yard brute, but Spieth found the more favourable lie on an area that had been trampled down over the course of the week and, thanks to a lovely pitch with his third, made 4 to Kuchar’s 5.
Incredibly, though, the pair were tied again just three holes later. That followed a Kuchar birdie and yet another lapse from Spieth with that normally-so-trusty flat stick in his hand. Kuchar was out in level-par 34 to sit eight-under. Spieth was out in 37. It was poor stuff in comparison to the sensational golf produced 12 months earlier by Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon, but it was gripping nonetheless. Even more so after the two joint-leaders had started for home by three matching pars, the one made by Spieth from the side of a bank following a wayward approach being important, though not nearly as much as some of the magical moments he produced in the next hour or so.
Spieth’s tee shot at the 13th was truly horrific, finding an awul spot high up on a dune miles to the right. He took a penalty drop but had to take that on the practice area, prompting a lengthy delay as officials made sure that things were being done the book. From there, Spieth got his third close to the green and managed to salvage a 5.
Kuchar’s 4 there gave him the lead but, if anyone thought the impetus was now with the older of the two Americans, they were soon proved wrong. The way Spieth responded to falling behind will become part of Open folklore and rightly so. He almost holed his tee shot at the 200-yard 14th, a birdie there making it a tie for the lead once again.
Spieth then followed that by rolling in a 45-foot eagle putt at the 542-yard 15th, pointing to the hole in celebration as that brilliant effort disappeared into the hole. That putter was back working again. In went another putt, this time for a birdie. Kuchar, who had birdied the 15th but had to settle for a par at the 16th, had gone from one in front to two behind in the space of three holes.
There was no danger of Spieth letting the Claret Jug slip out of his grasp now. He matched a Kuchar birdie at the 17th to keep that cushion. No heroics were needed at the last. A regulation par got the job done, comfortably as it turned out in the end as Kuchar closed with a bogey. What a finish!