A bit of controversy broke out in the golf world last week concerning Jordan Spieth’s shot at the season’s third major, the British Open, which takes place this week at St. Andrews.
Spieth, of course, has a shot at a Grand Slam this year, after having won the Masters and U.S. Open. He decided to keep his commitment to playing in the John Deere Classic this weekend in Illinois. A lot of people in golf admire his integrity for keeping his word. Spieth earned his first PGA Tour win at the John Deere. Others think Spieth would have been better off politely withdrawing from the Illinois tourney and getting to Scotland a week earlier to familiarize himself with St. Andrews’ Old Course.
Geoff Shackelford, a veteran journalist and Golf Digest blogger, was one of the critics of Spieth’s priorities.
“The Old Course presents more to process than any other course on the planet, assuming a player can soak it in,” Shackelford wrote. “Yes, the loyalty is admirable, but at his Hall of Fame induction will he be remembered for his loyalty to the John Deere Classic, or perhaps for having made a run at easily the greatest accomplishment in our sport: winning the modern Grand Slam?”
In a media conference call last week previewing the British Open, ESPN’s broadcast team of Mike Tirico, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger and Andy North were largely in Spieth’s corner.
“I commend him tremendously for keeping a commitment at Quad Cities, John Deere,” Strange said. “Bottom line, he’s doing what he thinks is right to do to prepare for the Open, and that’s all that matters.
“Now, there’s a couple things that he is aware of that are real, real obstacles. One is jet lag. That’s a real thing. The speed of the greens, to get used to those is a real thing. … I guess the one thing I would say is that his sanctuary is on the golf course, and playing this week might be the greatest thing in the world for him. We just have to wait and find out.”
North noted the fact the Spieth said he has been playing the Old Course on a golf simulator in his home.
“You look at some of the IndyCar drivers and they’re doing these games that actually do help them,” North said. “The fact that the pictures are so good, if nothing else, at least you know what steeple to aim at or what building to aim at in the distance, which might be of help.”
Tiger Woods, by the way, expressed his support for Spieth’s decision during an interview at the Greenbrier Classic.
“I think it’s great for him to play, get the playing feels, keep the playing feels going,” Woods said. “Whether you’re playing here or overseas, doesn’t really matter, as long as you have your feels. Feels travel.”
So Spieth has the “feels” going for him. Which is nice.
Golf Channel analysts Frank Nobilo, Brandel Chamblee and Jay Townsend also talked about the Open in a conference call last week. The Golf Channel, which is part of NBC Sports Group, will have daily programming from the British Open, including “Live from St. Andrews” each night from 7-9 EDT.
Their analysts were supportive of the choice Spieth made, though they talked candidly about how he may be putting himself at a disadvantage in “The Open Championship.”
“I think he’s done the right thing,” Nobilo said of Spieth. “It would be too easy to go down Easy Street,” and back out of the Illinois tournament. “I think that’s when Jordan reminds us that he’s 21 – there’s a difference I think in what an athlete needs to do and what we think he should do.”
“The definition of integrity is doing the right thing even when it’s a huge inconvenience,” Chamblee said, “and this is, from a competitive standpoint, just that.”
Chamblee pointed out that Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus were known for going to St. Andrews a week early to prepare for the Open.
Spieth “is repaying a debt and at huge inconvenience to himself,” Chamblee said. “It’s admirable, for sure, but he has so much to learn about St. Andrews in a very short period of time next week.”
Townsend said Spieth is doing the right thing, which is rare these days.
“Maybe he’ll never have another chance to win three in a row,” Townsend said, “and that just goes to show you how much integrity he really does have, giving up something like that. I’m not saying he’s giving up winning, but he’s certainly making it more difficult on himself.”
All the TV analysts were in agreement that Spieth’s temperament and shotmaking ability should put him in good shape at St. Andrews.
Spieth “is the best putter on tour right now,” Strange said. “If this thing gets fast and there’s not a lot of wind and rain and elements, it does become a putting contest, and he’s the best putter out there. … He’s not a bomber like” Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson “and some of the others, which they play hot and cold as we’ve seen over the years. But over the last two years, since Jordan has won his first tournament, he’s been unbelievably consistent with three wins and two of them majors.”
Spieth is No. 2 in the world golf rankings. The No. 1 player, McIlroy, is out of the British Open, of course, due to an ankle injury he suffered playing soccer. Azinger pointed out that McIlroy has every right to enjoy himself and play sports with his friends, but that he would someday regret the missed opportunity to play St. Andrews as reigning British Open champion.
“Golfers are athletes, too, and Rory is an athlete, and he likes to play soccer,” Azinger said. “But it’s an enforced error, and I think it’s going to be one of the greatest regrets he’ll ever have as a player is to have to look back on his career and realize that he didn’t get to defend at St. Andrews. But like I say, we can’t live in a bubble, but you have to be sensible. It didn’t need to happen. He did it to himself and it’s unfortunate, and it makes all of us sad, but him more than anybody, I’m sure.”
Strange was a bit more conciliatory.
“You know, if you were in team sports, LeBron James would tape it up and go play, Tom Brady would tape it up and go play in the Super Bowl, but in golf it’s a different animal because you don’t have a team aspect and you have to do it yourself,” Strange said. “You know, you can speculate on was it stupid, was it smart, but I think he’s being a kid and doing exactly what he wanted to do, and unfortunately it happened when he was defending the Open Championship.”
ESPN will carry more than 65 hours of live programming from St. Andrews. Live play is scheduled on the network from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday. SportsCenter, ESPN Radio and ESPN.com will also have multiple reports from the Old Course all week.