After Jordan Spieth’s birdie putt had rolled across 25ft of sloping terrain at Royal St George’s, it dropped with the sort of remarkable conviction that quickly pricks a sense of destiny. The Open Championship has often had a habit of personifying all the American’s abundant skill, bold imagination, and bouts with turmoil. But while the latter might have been forgiven for rearing its head as a bogey took first blood in his opening round, what followed amounted to near-faultlessness as Spieth shot 65 to surge into contention.
It was in 2017 that Spieth so famously – or agonisingly – spent 21 minutes scrutinising an unplayable lie en route to victory at Royal Birkdale. Few at that point could have sanely predicted the sudden rate of his downward spiral, nor that it would take 1351 days for him to emerge from those embittered doldrums. But a hometown victory in Texas in April sparked a cathartic renaissance and, with freedom in his shoulders and, perhaps most importantly, between the ears, he has re-established himself as a serious contender for several months now.
Still, though, he has rarely played quite so exquisitely as this. It was that birdie putt on the fifth that sparked a breathless run of four birdies in succession as Spieth expertly took advantage of mild conditions, with the sun blazing overhead and the wind breathing only in gentle gusts. His driving was precise and enabled him to take aggressive lines into the softer greens while his putting, temperamental for so long, was phenomenal throughout and brought forth two more birdies at the 15th and 16th.
“To be honest, the path that I’m on and where I’ve been before in the game, I feel really good about my chances going forward,” he said afterwards. “When it’s not going great, you can certainly lose quite a bit of confidence in it, and it takes — that was the first time I’ve had to really try and build confidence back up, and it takes time… By no means do I feel like I’m where I want to be mechanically yet, but this year has been a really, really good progression for me, and that’s all I’m trying to do is just get a little bit better each day.”
A tendency not just to over-analyse, but delve to the most maddening degrees of introspection has often been the root of Spieth’s downfall. But for all the uncertain factors that are innate to links golf, particularly at Royal St George’s, where cruel bounces are commonplace, Spieth seems able to fall back and then thrive on his instincts. If he can sustain that simplified approach, there are few players in the field who can match the supreme art and ingenuity he is able to wield in brushstrokes. “I think [links golf] brings a lot of the feel aspect into the game,” the 27-year-old said when asked about why he thrives at The Open. “I think I shorten swings up over here and hit more punch shots and just stuff that I probably should be doing at home. There are a lot of external factors over here, and I think that external is where I need to be living.”
The evidence for that was only heightened by Spieth playing alongside Bryson DeChambeau, whose brutish science came to little avail on a course where accuracy off the tee is a far more valuable commodity than distance. The ‘Mad Scientist’ often cut a disconsolate figure, unable to find a solution to his woes with the driver, hitting just four out of 14 fairways en route to a flat 71. “If I can hit it down the middle of the fairway, that’s great, but with the driver right now, the driver sucks,” he lamented. “It’s not a good face for me and we’re still trying to figure out how to make it good on the mis-hits. I’m living on the razor’s edge.”
Spieth knew that razor’s edge for a period longer than he cares to remember. But having found tranquillity on the other side, this was a sharp reminder of the skill that has separated him from the field on so many occasions.
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