The greatest moments in golf have come, as they have in every sport, when the human story has trumped everything else. When the sport and its technicalities; the player’s skill and imagination; have been superseded by the spectacle of an individual’s courage, self-belief and, occasionally, madness. Occasions like these, rare as they are, transcend the sport, and become lore—remembered as stories of human endeavour and triumph against all odds. Jack Nicklaus’ come-from-behind win at the 1986 Masters at the ripe age of 46—11 years after his last win on the PGA Tour—will probably always rank as the most inspired achievement in the annals of astonishing golfing achievements. More recently, Tiger Woods’ 18-hole playoff win at the 2002 US Open on an injured knee and in brutal conditions is the last such instance of a career-defining performance.
The context is necessary to convey the magnitude of what young Jordan Spieth, all of 24-years-old, achieved at Royal Birkdale at The Open this month. Lest you think I’m gushing and guilty of hyperbole, then you have company in Spieth: “It feels good when you ask me a question like this,” he said at the post championship press conference responding to a scribe’s question on the subject. “But I certainly don’t think I can be compared to them yet (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus)—those guys transcended the sport, I’ve got a long way to go before warranting such comparisons,” he added.
By now it’s nigh impossible that you’ve not read about, if not seen, the two-hour-long back- nine on the final day of The Open earlier this month. If by some freak chance you’ve missed all news about the most momentous climax in a major tournament since 2002, then here’s the gist. Jordan Spieth began the final day of The Open in the lead with a three-shot cushion over playing partner Matt Kuchar, and proceeded to drop all three strokes by the turn. In all sort of trouble, and barely able to make a fairway off the tee, it looked like a re-run of the young Texan’s horror back-nine at the 2016 Augusta Masters where he squandered a five-shot lead with nine holes to go on the final day. On the 13th hole, Spieth hit, possibly the worst drive of his professional career: a wild push that flared almost 100 yards to the right of the fairway. He spent 20 minutes figuring out where to drop the ball (after a penalty drop for an unplayable lie) and then hit a fantastic recovery shot from the driving range to just short of the greenside bunker. Spieth got up and down for a miraculous bogey but relinquished the lead to Kuchar.
But with that bogey the momentum shifted firmly to Spieth. He nearly aced the par 3 14th, settling for birdie, and then in a moment of inspired greatness sank a 50-footer for eagle on the 15th hole and followed that up with another bomb for a birdie on the 16th hole. Incredibly another birdie followed on the 17th hole before he closed out with a par on the last. In that last-gasp blitz Spieth went five-under on the last five holes. Understandably, the usually unflappable Kuchar, seemed almost on the verge of tears by the sudden turn of events. It was an unprecedented display, as a hapless Kuchar mumbled later, “he just really turned it up…”
There’s a delicious appropriateness of a classic performance—marked not by the modern ‘power’ game but by pure grit—taking place on a traditional century-old links-style course at the oldest golf tournament in existence. The Open is the only tournament that persists in crowning a ‘champion golfer’ and a ‘runner-up’ with the latter winning a silver salver while the former gets to host the ‘claret jug.’
The only superlative element in Jordan Spieth’s game, acknowledged by players and fans alike, is his skill with the putter. And typical of today’s pre-occupation with the power game, no one titters in a breathless way about Spieth’s skill with the flat stick like they do about Rory McIlroy’s driving, or Henrik Stenson’s ball-striking. In fact, Spieth has been at the receiving end, about how his ability to win tournaments relies overly on his putting. By implication it’s been insinuated that there’s something unfair about someone who has a funky swing, and can’t hit the ball as purely as some of his peers, stealing victory because he can, on his day, putt it in from anywhere. If you separate the prejudice, there’s a flip side to that argument: how can someone—who on his best day, is still not as good, in any aspect of the game, as Tiger Woods was at his best—win three Major Championships? Therein lies the genius of Jordan Spieth: the ability to dig deep and produce what is required when the situation calls for is what makes champions who they are.
With all due respect to Kuchar, he was not the primary adversary Spieth surmounted on the final day: the demons that got the better of Spieth at the 2016 Augusta Masters. They appeared to be in dominance when Spieth bogeyed the 13th hole. Even Kuchar allowed himself a smile after he hit a lovely approach on the hole while Spieth took a penalty drop and hit a blind third shot from what appeared to be another postal code. The rest, as we know, now, is history. It would be silly of me even to try and articulate those proceedings. You’ll find that on YouTube—go watch if you haven’t. Spieth wields the putter like a magic wand; but it’s his mettle in the face of adversity that’s truly superhuman.
If he wins the PGA Championship next month at Quail Hollow (or over the next three decades) Spieth will have the career grand slam, something achieved only by Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods. All guys who’ve ‘transcended the sport’, Spieth certainly managed to do that one wet afternoon in July.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game