About midway through the final round on Monday, when it seemed as if half the British Open field was sitting at 12 under par and making a run at the top, I got the feeling that it wasn’t going to be Jordan Spieth’s day.
Everywhere you turned, someone was draining a birdie putt and making a charge. You had former major champions like Adam Scott, Padraig Harrington, Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen; the two best players never to win a major, Jason Day and Sergio Garcia; even a few audacious amateurs who made a fleeting pass at the old Claret Jug.
More than anything, the final round of the Open reminded me how much talent there is in golf nowadays, and how amazing it was that Spieth, who doesn’t turn 22 until next week, was threatening to capture the first three majors of the season.
Golf is such a capricious sport to begin with, a handmaiden to luck, weather and circumstance. The thought of Spieth winning in the unpredictable conditions at St. Andrews and capturing a third straight major against such formidable opposition seemed, well, like almost too much to ask. There were simply too many guys in his way.
But Spieth nearly pulled it off. He came only one stroke short of joining Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman and eventual champion Zach Johnson in a four-hole playoff – and perhaps joining Ben Hogan, his fellow Texan, as the only two men to win the first three legs of a modern Grand Slam. (And wouldn’t it have been something to have Serena Williams and Spieth both chasing slams in the same calendar year?)
Day, who also finished a shot back and continued his run of near-misses in majors, once said the problem with majors is that you have to beat everyone else. Sometimes, a guy plays better. And Johnson, who drained a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole to get into the playoff, was just a little bit better than Spieth and everyone else in the end.
That’s certainly no disgrace. The fact that Spieth came so close was a tribute to his immense talent and dauntless competitive will. He had six three-putts and a four-putt in the Open. He had 37 putts in his second-round 72, his highest score in the majors this season. And still, he was one long putt from the edge of the 18th green from joining the playoff.
It was a wonderful day for golf, which is suffering from declining participation in this country but thriving at the highest levels. I can’t remember being so eager to watch a day of golf. If you were able to spend a Monday in front of the TV set, you were treated to one of the most exhilarating final rounds in major championship history.
This might be stating the obvious, but it felt over the last few days that the Tiger Woods era was finally over. Woods barely crossed my mind Monday. The game didn’t miss him. Oh, he still gets ratings when he plays. There are still people out there waiting for Tiger to provide the improbable comeback, to once again be the big story.
But it doesn’t matter to hard-core golf fans. They’re too busy watching the horde of top young players to be obsessed with Woods. The story goes on without him. Spieth is the story. The flood of young talent around the globe is the story. Seeing virtual unknowns contend for the biggest prize in the sport is the story.
The Open was such a great story, I barely missed defending champ Rory McIlroy, who was out with a wrist injury. Imagine the drama if McIlroy had been in the thick of things at the Old Course. He and Spieth should become the biggest rivalry in the game, like the Woods-Phil Mickelson rivalry that never quite materialized in the majors.
Golf will carry on without Tiger, but every major brings new appreciation for what he accomplished in his prime. Winning any major is a feat. Ask Garcia, Day and Matt Kuchar, who are still chasing their first. Or Scott, Rose and Oosthuizen, who have managed to win only one. Woods has won 14, including four in a row and seven of 11 at one point.
Spieth is now a combined 36 under par for the three majors this season. He was crestfallen after Monday’s round. He felt 15 under would win the Open. He got to 15 under with a 50-foot birdie putt on the 16th. But he bogeyed the 501-yard 17th hole – regarded as the toughest par-4 in golf – to miss the playoff by one shot.
Moments after finishing, Spieth said it hurts to lose in any major, regardless of its historic significance. He’s a fierce competitor who routinely follows bogeys with birdies. Spieth is mature beyond his years, and he understands that winning majors is a precious thing.
Spieth will almost surely win more majors. So will McIlroy. But I feel the same way I did after McIlroy won the U.S. Open four years ago in dominant fashion. Suddenly, people were talking about Rory making a run at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. Show a little more respect for the game, and how hard it is to win majors nowadays.
From 2008 to 2012, there was a stretch of 15 majors that were won by 15 different players. There are people who contend that it was tougher in Nicklaus’ day, but I disagree. There’s far more talent in the United States and around the world now than 40-50 years ago.
Spieth is a rare talent who could contend regularly in majors for the next 15 years. He could win one a year and be chasing Jack in his mid-30s, the way Woods did. He’s that good. But when I see amateurs making a run at the leader board in the majors, I realize there’s more talent out there than ever, and it will keep on coming.
Zach Johnson knows how rare and special a major can be. He won the Masters in 2007 and waited eight years for his second major victory. Johnson was crying during his TV interview after winning the playoff on Monday. He was moved by the very notion of playing golf for a living.
“It’s a beautiful game,” he said.
Even the champion would tell you that part of the game’s essential beauty is that it’s so damned hard.