Jordan Spieth sat in the Royal Birkdale media centre on Tuesday and oozed nothing but confidence about the 146th Open Championship. He’s shown why since the gun went off at the Southport venue. Sheer brilliance has earned the 23-year-old Texan a three-shot lead heading into the final round. Only Spieth beating himself – or someone repeating Branden Grace’s history-making 62 – can stop him claiming a first Claret Jug.
“Extremely pleased,” said Spieth of his position, having moved to 11-under-par in his bid to add this title to his 2015 Masters and US Open triumphs. Achieving the feat would see him join Jack Nicklaus in winning three different majors before turning 24 and set up a crack at a career Grand Slam in next month’s US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
On one of the lowest-scoring day’s in this event for many a year – Grace took pride of place as he became the first male to sign for a 62 in a Major – Spieth carded a flawless five-under-par 65 as he moved almost effortlessly to 11-under-par. His playing partner, Matt Kuchar, had joined him in the lead on 10-under after rolling in a birdie putt at the 15th, but, after matching that by making amends for a terrible first attempt, the final few holes turned the tide back Spieth’s way.
Kuchar double-bogeyed the 16th after being bunkered then three-putting before repairing part of that damage by getting up and down from the sand at the next. Both played superb approaches into the last but, after Spieth rolled his putt in from around 18 feet, Kuchar’s effort from much closer caught the edge of the hole and spun away.
US Open champion Brooks Koepka (68) shares third spot with Canadian Austin Connelly (66) on five-under, one ahead of Grace and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama after the world No.2 recovered from his double-bogey 7 at the 17th on Friday to card a 66. World No.1 Dustin Johnson and defending champion Henrik Stenson shot 64 and 65 respectively to sit on three-under alongside Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello (67) and unheralded American Chan Kim (67), with Richie Ramsay, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter all a shot further back.
However, this championship has belonged so far to Spieth and, with the bit clearly between his teeth, it would be a major surprise if he doesn’t go on to claim a third victory of the season after arriving on the Lancashire coast with victories in the AT&T National Pro-Am and Travelers Championship under his belt. The chasing pack, of course, will take heart from the fact that Spieth blew a five-shot lead in the final round of last year’s Masters, but the player himself believes he can use that disappointment to ensure this golden chance doesn’t slip through his grasp as well. “I think I’m in a position where it can be very advantageous,” he insisted. “I’ve gone through, the good, the bad, and everything in the middle. I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling on one. It was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward.”
This was the first time that Kuchar had gone out in the last group in a major. He’s looking forward to doing it all over again, even though the 39-year-old has given himself more work to do than he would probably have wanted in the final round as he bids to become an eighth consecutive first-time major winner. “It was a fun round of golf,” he said after signing for a 66. “He and I had a lot of birdies (they shared 11, but I never felt like I was out there trying to beat Jordan. It’s trying to go up against Royal Birkdale and put on the best show you can against the golf course. My goal for tomorrow will be to continue with good golf. Again, I’ll be playing with him but not focused on him. My goal is to go out and play Royal Birkdale. I’ll know exactly where we stand but I don’t know how much that ever helps you. You just have to go out and hit the best shot for the situation. The formula has produced a lot of good golf and I hope it continues to produce some good golf tomorrow.”
After his US Open win at Erin Hills last month, Koepka is in with a chance of becoming the first player since Spieth two years ago to triumph in back-to-back majors. He’d have been a shot closer to the lead but for a closing bogey but is still in the hunt, as is Connelly after the 20-year-old, who, like Spieth, lives in Dallas, continued to enjoy a dream debut. He followed an opening birdie by holing his approach for an eagle 2 at the second before finishing birdie-birdie.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Connelly. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about and picturing myself here for a long time. And it’s really just nice to be here. I never felt nerves from the first tee on, which is surprising to me. I was very calm. I think it has to do with I’m very confident with how I’m hitting it.”
Johnson and Stenson were both pleased with their day’s work, even though Spieth’s finish has left them with eight shots to make up. “I’m going to need to probably shoot nine-under, I would imagine,” said Johnson. “To get to 12-under, I think that would be a decent number to sit on in the clubhouse.”
When he left the Scottish Open last Sunday, Stenson didn’t fancy his chances at all of getting in the mix here. The Swede has surprised himself, though, and has an outside chance of emulating what Padraig Harrington did here in 2008 by making a successful defence of the Claret Jug.
“I think we could have been sniffing around those numbers as well,” said Stenson of Grace’s 62 earlier in the day. “I don’t think it would have been impossible for me to shoot a similar number today, but I’m happy with the 65.”
Thankfully, a lightning threat didn’t materialise, though it was quite heavy rain on and off as the leaders played the final few holes. That followed a spell of torrential rain on Friday night, though soft conditions weren’t the sole reason for this scoring spree. “They’ve done a couple of things today that I’ve not actually seen at the Opens,” reported Grace, the man that cashed in the most on the day. “They’ve moved the tees up at both the fifth and seventh to give guys an opportunity to be aggressive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think that’s why there are low scores out there today.”