The World Cup may not have made it “home”, but the Claret Jug has completed that journey. Handing it back was something Jordan Spieth, the 2017 Champion Golfer of the Year, did with a heavy heart. “It wasn’t an enjoyable experience,” admitted the Texan of his first task at the start of the week in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Back in the day, that would have happened behind closed doors. Not now, though. The TV cameras were rolling as Spieth stepped on to the first tee at the Angus venue and gave one of golf’s most coveted trophies back to Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.
“The traditions of The Open are very special, even if you’re on the wrong end of that one,” added Spieth, one of the sport’s most likeable individuals. “I thought maybe somebody would meet me in the parking lot and I’d just give them the case back, and we’d move on.
“But it was a ceremony, and because of that, it actually hit me harder. I was like, ‘man, this was in my possession’. I took it to all the places that allowed me to get to where I am today. My family was able to take it around. Members of the team were able to take it. It’s the coolest trophy that our sport has to offer. So having to return that was certainly difficult, kind of hit me a little bit there on the tee box.”
The 24-year-old hopes to claim it back on Sunday. “Hopefully only out of my possession for a week, which would be ideal,” he said, smiling. He’ll need to produce a better performance than he did when missing the cut in last month’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Spieth is quietly confident, though, that he has another big Open Championship in his locker for a first appearance in the event at this venue.
“My game feels good,” he said. “I needed a break. I was kind of dragging along, cut-line golf for a while, and playing a pretty heavy schedule, and I needed to kind of get away from the game, which I did.” A trip to the US Special Olympic in Seattle along with his little sister coincided with a visit back to Chambers Bay, where he won the US Open in 2015. As was the case before last year’s win at Royal Birkdale, he also spent some time with some friends chilling out in Cabo, his favourite holiday spot in Mexico. “I knew there was work that needed to be done and things weren’t firing on all cylinders to win golf tournaments,” he added. “I know what that feels like and I wasn’t feeling that way. But I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working and I kind of attacked the places that really needed some strong work. It was nice to kind of start from scratch, almost like wet concrete with parts of my game.
“That combination with an Open Championship, the way it needs to be played, I think, is a really good spot for me to kickback into shape. Coming to an Open Championship requires a lot of feel and imagination, and I think that’s what I needed a bit of in my game. I’d gotten very technical and very into making everything perfect instead of kind of the way that I normally play.
“So this week kind of provides that opportunity where you don’t know how far the ball is necessarily going to go off the tee. You need to play the spots, and then you have to use your imagination from there hold the ball, ride the wind, a lot of different scenarios based on where pins are and the distance that you have.”
Spieth, a three-time major winner, covered the last five holes in five-under-par at Royal Birkdale to become the youngest Open champion since Seve Ballesteros in 1979. Equally important on that final day was his decision to take a penalty drop on the practice area following a wayward drive at the 13th hole, allowing him to escape with a bogey when greater damage seemed inevitable in his last-day battle with compatriot Matt Kuchar.
“Yeah, absolutely,” replied Spieth to being asked if that had been one of the best decisions of his career. “It had to be the best, yeah, considering the timing and what it led to. It was my idea. I’ll certainly claim that one. Michael [Greller, his caddie] was pretty adamant about going back and re-teeing but I said, ‘Well, I’m going to look around and see if I can take an unplayable within two club lengths any direction.
“There was such a slope that I had to get lucky on the drop for it not to roll back into another bush. And I just remember kind of looking at him going, ‘Okay, if I’m taking an unplayable, the other line is you can go in line with the hole as far back as you want’. There was a flat spot to drop, but I could only hit maybe a 9 iron back to the fairway then, which was going to be better than re-teeing still. It would have been the same as me hitting a tee shot, but instead I could hit a short iron.
“I was running that scenario through. Then I run the next one. If I go even further back, all of a sudden, I’m on the driving range. Is it out of bounds? There’s a question. No, it’s not out of bounds. Okay, if I drop it on these trailers, I’ll then get a free drop, and if my free drop goes to the right, I have all this space. Now it was how far will I have to the hole? If I have over 300 yards, then there’s no point in doing so because it will be the same scenario; it’s too risky. I’ll have to hit it back to the fairway, and I may as well drop it from 50 yards up closer.
“But, when we figured out that that yardage was a yardage I could reach the green, it made sense that I could hit it up around the green, and it would have been my best chance to make the best score. I felt like I was working the rules to help save a stroke. It’s that simple. That’s legitimately all I was thinking about.”