As Jordan Spieth walked off the 18th green, from the 72nd hole after 4 long rounds of championship golf, he took the time and applauded the fans who had spent much of their day applauding him, the same fans that serenaded him one day earlier, the same fans that came out not to see the shell of what was Tiger Woods, but the new superstar of golf.
They came by the thousands on Monday, lured by cheap tickets (due to the postponement of the 2nd round) and the chance to see history – a chance to see someone take the 3rd major on his way to immortality. They jam-packed into huge grandstands and sat or stood at least 10 deep against each other on the finishing fairways. They waited in the rain (lord knows how the weather played for/against the golfers this week), and they urged and prodded Spieth to deliver.
A magical 50-foot putt curled left to right before dropping in the hole for birdie on No. 16 would set the stage. The fans began thinking that there would be more magic to come and Spieth would enter the record books as the first player to win his first three majors of the year since Ben Hogan (62 years ago – man, time flies).
As he stood on the 17th tee, Spieth was thinking the same thing. A par on the brutal Road Hole and a birdie on the short 18th would give him the British Open trophy to add to those won in the Masters and U.S. Open. It would also put him on the brink of golf immortality, just one win from the Grand Slam no modern player has ever won (Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930 were the British Open, British Amateur, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur – the Masters and PGA Championship did not exist back then).
The Road Hole was playing so long into the rain and wind that Spieth couldn’t reach the green in two. No matter, because he plopped his pitch just 8 feet from the hole. Almost shockingly, he missed it right. The best putter in the game didn’t make the one that mattered the most.
Alas, because of the miss, it would be a bogey on 17. A misplaced drive on the 18th cause Spieth to struggle, and it seemed that was that. But then came the putt, a final putt from the Valley of Sin that barely missed 3 inches to the left, so close yet so far away. The miss ended Spieth’s chances of getting in what would have been a four-man playoff. There would be no claret jug for Spieth, no Grand Slam for golf.
Zach Johnson would go on to win, giving the Open a fine champion. But the sense that something bigger was lost wasn’t just felt by the fans who bought dirt-cheap tickets to sit in the rain on what was looking to be that one magical day. Not since Tiger Woods’ chances evaporated in a rain-blown 81 in the third round at Muirfield in 2002 had a player had a shot at three straight majors.
Spieth had said a day earlier that he would be playing to win, not to finish third. He understood the magnitude of the moment and instead of being overwhelmed by it, he choose to embrace it. On another day, the 3-under 69 he shot might have been enough. But this was a day where Johnson shot a 66, and Marc Leishman matched him shot for shot. Louis Oosthuizen had a 69 of his own to make it a three-way playoff that Johnson would eventually win. As it turned out, this wasn’t a tournament Spieth lost. It was one that someone else won.
Spieth will go to the PGA Championship in Wisconsin in a few weeks, where he’ll be the favorite. Golf has a new superstar in the 21-year-old, and nothing that happened in what became the longest Open championship ever changes that.
There’s a lot to like about his attitude, a lot to like about a guy who made a point of staying around for the playoff. Spieth sat on the steps of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse behind the 18th green watching as Oosthuizen missed his final putt to give Johnson the championship. He then waited for the right moment before heading over the giving Johnson a congratulatory hug for winning the second major of his career.
No, Spieth didn’t win his third straight major. He won’t win the Grand Slam this year. But he sure didn’t look much like a loser to those lucky enough to be watching on a rainy day in Scotland.