It’s been a while since I wrote about golf, but I feel the need to chime in on this season before I’m the last living golf-watching/writing soul that hasn’t added my two cents.
Like many, I remember watching Jordan Spieth as a 16-year old kid, when he contended at the Byron Nelson Classic.
I also followed his college career loosely, and remember that he was the low amateur at the 2012 US Open at Olympic in San Francisco, even though Beau Hossler was the amateur who temporarily contended that Friday. When Spieth won the John Deere Classic in a playoff two years ago, I was happy for him. It was a nice golf story. I was surprised, like most, at how quickly he learned to compete against men on the Tour. And I was sad to see that his hairline had also become comparable!
Having said that, I sure didn’t see this coming! Anyone who is bothering to read this probably knows that Jordan Spieth has already won the Masters and the US Open this year (in addition to two other tournaments, including the John Deere this past weekend). He’s the first since Tiger Woods in 2002, and only the sixth golfer in history, to come to The Open Championship, held this year at St Andrews (yeah, yeah, the birthplace of golf), with a chance to win the a calendar Grand Slam. Only one, the great Ben Hogan, has actually won this third leg after winning the first two - at Carnoustie, in 1953, setting the course record in the process - and no professional golfer has ever been able to complete the modern Grand Slam, which would include the PGA Championship in August. (Hogan didn't play in the PGA in 1953 because of travel for the Open. Hogan actually didn't enter the PGA after his car crash in 1949 until it was changed from a match play format to stroke play in the 1960s.) Tiger once held all 4 Championships simultaneously - the Tiger Slam of 2000-2001 - but he didn't win them in a single calendar year. Given the vagaries of golf, the need to simultaneously defeat over 100 professional golfers in each tournament, and the unrelenting individual pressure that would build through the season, it has to be regarded as one of the greatest possible achievements in organized sports.
The absence of Rory McIlroy from this Open Championship due to injury has further cemented Spieth as the overwhelming favorite, but it still remains highly unlikely that he will win. The Open Championship has so many variables, not the least of which is the weather. Tiger Woods’ hopes of a Grand Slam were literally blown off the course at Muirfield in 2002. He was the most dominant golfer anyone had ever seen at the time, but he shot an 81 that Saturday when he had to play through a violent, brief squall that coincided with his 3rd round. Small groups of players can be affected by brutal conditions for 5 or 6 holes while the majority of the field is not. Half the field can play in bright, calm sunshine for both of their first two rounds, while the other half has to fight driving rain and wind. You just never know.
I would also suggest that for Spieth, his lack of experience on the Old Course will work against him more than it has at the first two majors of the year. The Masters is odd in this regard. Although the actuality of playing Augusta National requires knowledge and feel, the course itself is so well known that it is possible to develop a game plan to play it. It comes down to execution, which is easier said than done. But it can be done, especially for a professional who has a Masters or two already under his belt.
Spieth had a significant advantage in local knowledge at the US Open at Chambers Bay in June. His caddie, Michael Greller, lives next to the course and knows it well. Spieth, unlike most of the field, had personal playing experience there. While the conditions were undoubtedly different than in his prior rounds, his familiarity with the routing and the elevation changes, as well as his caddie’s knowledge of the course and its greens, were certainly enough to account for the stroke by which he defeated Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen.
This will not be the case at St. Andrews, where Spieth and Greller have limited experience. The changing winds alone will provide a challenge that neither of them can realistically have the experience to fully overcome. The other factor is luck. Luck plays a huge part in any Open victory, and not just as pertains to the weather. Jordan hits the occasional wayward tee shot, like all golfers, but he doesn't overpower a course. Luck will play a much larger factor in his ability to recover from his wayward shots at the Open Championship than it did at Chambers Bay, or at Augusta for that matter.
Spieth's greatest advantage over the field will also be slightly negated by the conditions at St Andrews. Right now, he is the best putter in the world, and it isn't even close. However, the greens at the Open are usually somewhat slower than the marble tables of the first two majors. Not that Jordan won't putt them well, but other players - who are merely excellent putters - are more likely to be able to putt well enough to win.
So those are all the reasons why Jordan Spieth probably won't win the Open Championship. I do believe he will contend, though. He has shown a remarkable ability to recover from poor holes, as he did after a double bogey on the 17th hole in the final round of the US Open. He is able to summon good shots when necessary, to right the ship when he hits a bad stretch, and to make miles and miles of putts. Patience, competitive focus, and improvisation are huge factors at St Andrews, and Jordan has them all. So he will be close. I just think that his lack of experience at St Andrews, and at the Open Championship in general, will cost him a stroke or three, and that will be enough to drop him into finishing 3rd or 4th.
This also assumes that other players will rise to the occasion, and I think that they will. If the Old Course plays benignly, Dustin Johnson might be able to overpower it. Rickie Fowler has been gearing up for Majors, having finished top 5 in all four last year. He's 26, and he's ready to win one. He won the Players Championship earlier this year, and just won the Scottish Open this past weekend, like Phil Mickelson did when he won at Muirfield 2 years ago. Louis Oosthuizen won in a runaway the last time the Open Championship was at St Andrews in 2010, and just finished 2nd in the US Open.
There are the Europeans and Brits, who desperately want to win their de facto home major. Guys like Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, even the beleaguered Sergio Garcia, who might just channel the St Andrews spirit of his mentor Seve Ballesteros. Adam Scott is still owed an Open Championship after his collapse at Royal Lytham a couple years back. He’s got the Bulldog Steve Williams back as his caddie, and he’s running out of Majors in which he can use his broomstick anchored putter. Jason Day may still be fighting vertigo, but if healthy he's a threat for sure. Or maybe the terrific young player from Japan, Hideki Matsuyama. That doesn't even account for some of the old guys, like Ernie Els, or Jim Furyk, or even Phil Mickelson. Most of the golf media would love to include Tiger in this category, but they'd also admit that's a huge stretch.
See, there’s just so many guys with a really good chance to win, and unlike at Chambers Bay, half the field hasn't already talked themselves out of contention because of the course. Maybe even Bubba Watson can step out of his comfort zone this week and play as well in Scotland as he does in Georgia and Connecticut. He showed some gutsy maturity with his recent decision to paint over the Confederate flag on the General Lee (yes, that General Lee, Bubba owns the car from The Dukes of Hazzard), so maybe he's growing up a bit. After all, it’s hard to complain about anything when you’re playing in the Open at St Andrews.
So who would I pick? Hard to say. Picking golf tournaments is a fool's errand, but what the heck. I think Spieth will contend, but ultimately fall a few strokes short. Part of me thinks that Dustin Johnson might pull this one off. Dustin doesn't seem like a guy who will be too worked up about his 3-putt to finish the US Open, at least until he has to make another putt to win something. If he could pull a few strokes ahead, that might not matter, although I do see one really bad shot blocked into the gorse doing him in (see- Royal St Georges in 2011). Johnson, Spieth and Matsuyama are all playing together the first two rounds, and I think they'll be playing pretty close to each other through the late afternoons on the weekend as well. I don't love Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen simply because they are playing with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds. Watching Tiger hack his way around the course, with the shell of his circus around him, just isn't conducive to success these days. (Yes I know that Louis played with him at the US Open, but it didn't go so well early.)
Sticking with the tee time theory, Justin Rose and Sir Nick Faldo are playing together for the first two rounds. That's a nice grouping for Rose, and I think he'll be right there at the end. However, the young American playing with these two on Thursday and Friday is the guy to watch for late Sunday afternoon.
I realize that it isn't much of a reach to pick a young American to win the Open Championship this week. All of the recent talk in golf has been about Jordan Spieth, the Grand Slam, and the rivalry-on-hold between Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Next week, though, get ready to hear about Nicklaus, Player and Palmer, and Hogan, Nelson, and Snead.
The New Big Three will be all the rage after Rickie Fowler raises the Claret Jug on Sunday, as the Champion Golfer of the Year for 2015.