On the eve of the 2015 Open at St Andrews, newly-crowned Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth was one of five players gathered by a mutual sponsor for an exhibition. There was a game set up that involved the stars – Spieth was joined by Gary Woodland, Matt Fitzpatrick, Bernd Wiesberger and Hunter Mahan – hitting balls at a small pane of glass some 25 yards away.
Spieth hit his target with his first attempt before he turned to his right and, with Fitzpatrick struggling, obliterated the Englishman’s for good measure.
He finished 4th at that Open and, a few weeks later, second at the PGA Championship to move to World No 1 for the first time.
Everything was coming up Spieth on and off the course.
He then needed just two and a half years to get within one win of becoming the sixth player to complete his Grand Slam.
But that dramatic victory at the 2017 Open was his last and Spieth began 2021 as the World No 82 – nestled between Talor Gooch and Thomas Detry- before teeing up at the Waste Management Phoenix Open 10 places lower. Utterly unfathomable for a player who, for years, made the game look like the easiest thing in the world.
After a pair of 67s at Scottsdale, Spieth set the golf world on fire with a third-round 61 that had us all dreaming of simpler times when his name was threatening the top of leaderboards week in, week out.
Everything fell in as Spieth rolled back the years with that delicious putting stroke – his holed birdie putts on 16 and 17 alone totalled 66 feet – and all while refusing to keep his drives on the planet.
“I just tried to hit the fat parts of the greens,” he said afterwards. Taking the game back to its simplest form worked wonders for him and saw him top the leaderboard with 18 to play for the first time since Carnoustie in 2018.
“I have no expectations tomorrow,” he added. “I really don’t.”
But it didn’t really matter what Spieth did on Sunday. That third-round was validation enough.
It tied his career-low round from the 2015 John Deere Classic and it must have felt like an anvil had been lifted from his shoulders.
Last month renowned swing coach Butch Harmon denied he has been working with Spieth – “All I did was give him my opinion” – but, whatever he said, it was all on display on Saturday.
Can you remember the last time a round of golf that wasn’t at a major or Ryder Cup made me feel that emotional? I can’t remember the last time a round of golf made me feel that emotional full stop.
It was like having an old friend back. After years of not really knowing who he was, he was back to his relatable, self-deprecating self in a four-hour glimmer of hope that perhaps – just perhaps – he isn’t a has-been at the age of 27 after all.
And after the sour events of last week, every golf fan needed that. The anti-Reed, if you will.
It’s great to have you back, Jordan. We’ve missed you.
So what happened on Sunday?
Spieth carded a final-round 72 to finish in a tie for 4th – with Steve Stricker, of all people – and two behind another comeback kid, Brooks Koepka.
Koepka, who had missed the cut in all three of his starts since his top 10 at the Masters, was plodding along nicely at TPC Scottsdale when, with no one seemingly wanting to take hold of the title, he found himself in contention.
Then came a moment of magic at the 71st hole we haven’t seen from the four-time major champion in a long time.
The chip-in took him to 19-under, a target that wasn’t matched, and Koepka – an inexplicable 45/1 shot at the start of the week – had his second Phoenix Open title and eighth on the PGA Tour.
“I was in some dark places mentally,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to be the same again.
“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was.
“My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with my trainer, it just felt like it wasn’t progressing. And that’s the frustrating part, when you feel like it’s not going anywhere.
“But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You’ve got to come out of that.
“I’ll tell you what, it takes a lot of effort just to get out of those places.”
A remarkable show of emotion from a player who normally offers little more than a restrained eye roll followed by an answer so fleeting you wonder what even the best writers in the game could do with it.
Now let’s move on while I’m still pleased with myself for not resorting to a Phoenix from the flames joke…
- RELATED: What’s in Koepka’s winning bag?
Did you know?
This is the international hand gesture for “Your ball is in the water, mate”?
I’m dying! ? pic.twitter.com/lKdUPO4pqc— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) February 7, 2021
Dare you back anyone but DJ at Augusta?
Fun fact: Graeme McDowell is the only player to have beaten Dustin Johnson at the Saudi International.
In his first full-field event since winning the Masters, DJ rocked up on the European Tour and won by two. His record in this event is now 1st-2nd-1st.
Johnson’s 12 rounds on the par-70 track read 68-61-65-67-67-68-68-67-67-64-66-68. Put your calculator away, it’s 44-under-par.
Not quite as mind boggling is the amount of money he’ll take back across the Atlantic with him. DJ’s win earned him just over €500,000. Not to be sniffed at, of course, but his 1-2-1 finishes have earned him €1.3 million combined. That’s really not much more than if he’d played in Phoenix this week and won.
Which begs the question: Just how much are they paying the World No 1 in appearance fees? Maybe it’s best we don’t know. (It’s seven figures, by the way.)
One thing’s for sure, with the Masters just two months away, who’s brave enough to bet on him not defending his Green Jacket?
At least we know he’s human
There was a moment of magic for club golfers everywhere on Saturday when DJ stood over his second shot to the par-5 4th when he did this…
Always nice to know even the best player on the planet fats it sometimes.
Of course he went and did somethig none of us could ever do – he stiffed his third and rolled in the short birdie putt.
- RELATED: What’s in DJ’s winning bag?
The other day I saw Shane Lowry described as the “reigning Open champion” and had to double take. How long ago does Portrush feel?
The good news for Lowry is he will get the chance to defend the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s in July after the R&A announced the Open will go ahead – even if it means no fans on site.
And it got my brain whirring. Who has had to wait the longest to defend their Champion Golfer of the Year title?
Well, I crunched the numbers – by which I mean went on Wikipedia – and came up with the following:
- 6 years, 11 months, 27 days (July 7, 1939-July 3, 1946): Dick Burton
- 6 years, 12 days (June 19, 1914-June 30, 1920): Harry Vardon
- 1 year, 11 months, 30 days (September 15, 1870-September 13, 1872): Tom Morris Jr
- 1 year, 11 months, 25 days (July 21, 2019-July 15, 2021) Shane Lowry
While the first two are the breaks for World Wars II and I respectively, looking into this reminded me of a story I had completely forgotten but absolutely love.
The reason there was no Open in 1871 was because Young Tom had won the previous three and therefore gained permanent posession of the Challenge Belt – the prize for the Open champion in those days. Organisers couldn’t decide how to precede sans trophy and therefore the tournament was cancelled.
I’m trying to think which player in today’s game would keep the trophy and cause the cancellation of an actual major.
It’s Patrick Reed, isn’t it?
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