Jordan Spieth has the momentum but it’s too tight to call

Jordan Spieth, right, crosses the Barry Burn to make his way to the 18th green. Photograph: Kenny Smith/SNS
Jordan Spieth, right, crosses the Barry Burn to make his way to the 18th green. Photograph: Kenny Smith/SNS
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The last three Open Championships at Carnoustie have all required play-offs to determine the Champion Golfer of the Year. Another four-hole shoot-out for the Claret Jug could be in the offing at the Angus venue as it’s tight at the top heading into the final circuit in the 147th staging of golf’s oldest major. It’s set to blow for that. Perfect, especially as that leaderboard is tasty.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, tops it on nine-under along with two of his compatriots, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele. Kisner is refusing to go away in this title tussle, having either led outright or shared the lead since Thursday. Schauffele has taken to links golf quickly, tying for 20th on his debut in this event last year, when he won the Tour Championship in the US, and now he’s in the mix again.

Another player flying the Stars and Stripes, Kevin Chappell, sits a shot back while a seven-strong group on five-under includes three former winners, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson. Matt Kuchar, last year’s runner-up, and Carnoustie course record-holder Tommy Fleetwood are also in that posse, as are on-form Italian Francesco Molinari, stuffy Swede Alex Noren and a rejuvenated Webb Simpson.

Thanks to a best-of-the-day 64, Justin Rose is also still in contention, especially with winds set to gust to 20-25mph in the afternoon, but he’s got some heavy artillery to jump ahead of to claim this prize.

Not since Padraig Harrington achieved the feat a decade ago has The Open produced a back-to-back winner. Spieth is trying to do the trick at the same two courses but in reverse, having claimed his win 12 months ago at Birkdale. The Texan was going along nicely on the first day before the wheels came off late on. He’s re-grouped, though, and has the scent of victory in his nostrils again. His 65 was ignited by driving the green at the opening hole and rolling in a 12-footer for eagle, his ball circling the hole before toppling in. After that, it was one of those masterclasses we’ve been treated to in the past from the 24-year-old when he’s firing on all cylinders. Birdies at the fourth, 11th, 14th and 16th in a bogey-free effort was a splendid day’s work.

“I watched the scores this morning and it seemed like it was very gettable,” said the three-time major winner. “It was a bonus to get on the green (at the first) and obviously for the putt to kind of curl in. It was a dream start for the day.” One of the best putters in the game, he’d struggled a bit in the opening two rounds on greens that are being kept at 10.1 feet on the stimpmeter but is rolling them better now. “My speed control was great. I feel comfortable kind of giving it the extra oomph now,” he added.

Spieth’s success 12 months ago, when he covered the final five holes in five-under, made up for the bitter disappointment of letting a second Green Jacket slip of his shoulders in 2016. “I felt like I had something I had to prove to other people and really to myself more than anything with last year’s Open, but I don’t feel that way now,” he insisted. “I’m playing golf for me now. And I’ve got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one. It’s ideal for Carnoustie to have a bunched leaderboard and 25-mile-an-hour winds on Sunday because it means that someone could post a score from six hours before and potentially win the golf tournament tomorrow.”

He’s sporting a fresh haircut, having popped into a barber up on the high street earlier in the day. “He went a little high and tight – very British,” he said laughing. Kisner, who is staying in the same “frat house” as Spieth this week, described it as a “military grade haircut” after he signed for a bogey-free 68 to retain a prominent position. Schauffele earned his spot in that three-way tie after a 67 that contained six birdies. He knows more about what it takes to win this event than you might think for a Californian. “A lot, actually,” he replied to being asked if he’d watched The Open much as a kid. “If you look at my last name, it’s not very American. My dad’s half French, half German. So The Open Championship was always on in my house.”

That Woods is in with a chance of getting his hands on a fourth Claret Jug is remarkable. Winning here, in fact, would be one of the greatest stories this great game has witnessed. He’s not played in this event since 2015 due to chronic back problems. This is just his 13th competitive start since returning from a fourth back procedure. He’d shown glimpses of being good again but not to the extent that a first major victory since 2008 could be a possibility. As was the case earlier in the week, Woods stepped on to the opening tee to look up the first fairway to see it lined four deep all the way up to the green. For all that he blotted his copybook off the course, the majority of golf fans still love to see him in the flesh. He raised the first chorus of “come on, Tiger” roars of the day with a birdie at the fourth. By the time he got to six-under for the day after 14 holes, he was tied for the lead. The buzz from that was spine-tingling.

The finish was a bit untidy. He left a putt from below the level of the green at the 16th woefully short and missed the par attempt. His tee shot at the last was close to ending up in the burn on the left. After a chop out, though, his distance control with the next one was majestic, avoiding a closing bogey. A 66 – his best score in this event since carding a 65 in the second round at Hoylake 12 years ago. Guess who won on that occasion?

“That was good. I played well today. I really did,” he said. “I hit a lot of good shots. I really didn’t feel like I really made a bad swing until 18. I really felt like I had control of the golf ball today. And on top of that, I made some longer putts, which was nice. Before we teed off, there were a bunch of guys that were putting up great scores, and the golf course was gettable. I didn’t want to be too far back if the guys got to 10-under par today. I had to stay within reach. And 4 is definitely within reach.

“That (the 18th) was big for me just to not finish with two bogeys on the last three holes, playing as well as I did. My lay up was perfect, up the left side, so I had an angle at that flag, only had 83 yards. I figured just this nice little one like I practised in the backyard, and I hit my number.”

Molinari, who matched Spieth both score-wise and also avoiding any bogeys, is a man on form. The 35-year-old Italian has won on both the European Tour and PGA Tour over the past couple of months. His best effort in ten previous appearances in this event was joint-ninth in 2013 at Muirfield, where the course was also fast-running.

“It was the day to be aggressive today. I’m really happy with where I am at the moment. I know tomorrow is going to be a different story. Now it’s all about getting ready for that. I think it’s going to be really important to adapt quickly to the different conditions,” he said.

That run of form has coincided with Dave Aldred, a performance coach who worked with Jonny Wilkinson when he was one of the most successful kickers in rugby for England, joining his backroom team. “I think he’s been a great addition to the team,” added Molinari. “He’s probably a personality and a figure that I was missing and the whole team was missing. So I think he pushed us all a little bit more. You can see the results, the difference that he’s made.”

It was a mis-firing day for McIlroy, pictured inset, as he signed for a 70, dropping two shots in the last three holes. “But I’m still in the tournament,” insisted the 28-year-old. “I just need to get off to a fast start tomorrow. The wind will make things interesting.” Fleetwood described an up-an-down 71 as “just one of them days”. Johnson, the joint-overnight leader, rolled in a monster for eagle on the sixth before running up a 6 at the 12th. As for shot of the day, that was easy. Zander Lombard, after all, will never forget holing his second from 132 yards at the last at Carnoustie.