SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — The start was not what anyone expected out of Jordan Spieth. All that mattered to him was how he finished the British Open.
And that might have been the biggest surprise of all.
The record will show that Spieth took a three-shot lead into the final round at Royal Birkdale, closed with a 1-under 69 and won by three shots over Matt Kuchar, giving him the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
“Seventeen pars and a birdie would have been fine, too,” Spieth said, the silver claret jug at his side. “But there’s a lot of roads to get there.”
The road less traveled? This was more like blazing a new trail.
Seve Ballesteros won the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes by making birdie from the parking lot. Spieth was spared at Royal Birkdale by making a bogey from the driving range when he was expecting no better than a double bogey.
Henrik Stenson finished with four birdies over the last five holes at Royal Troon last year to pull away from Phil Mickelson in one of golf’s greatest duels. Trailing for the first time all weekend, Spieth went birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to overcome his own doubts and win his third major just four days before he turns 24.
“He’s a fighter. He’s shown that the whole way through his short career,” Rory McIlroy said. “He can dig himself out of these holes. He’s an absolute star.”
Spieth headed back home to Texas with golf’s oldest trophy, and the first drink to be poured must surely be some magic elixir.
How else to explain how he pulled this one off?
“It was certainly a show that he put on,” Kuchar said.
It sure didn’t look like that at the start, when Spieth made three bogeys on his opening four holes to lose his lead, regained a two-shot advantage with a birdie and an exquisite pitch for par on the tough sixth hole, and then gave it right back with a three-putt bogey on the ninth as Kuchar made birdie.
Spieth couldn’t help but think to the last time he had the lead in a major. It was 15 months ago when he lost a five-shot lead on the back nine at Augusta National, and the memories still lingered.
“As you can imagine, thoughts come in from my last scenario when I was leading a major on Sunday,” he said. “I was so confident and all of a sudden, the wheels have kind of come off everything. And how do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end? It took a bogey to do so.”
Lost in the birdies and eagle during that mesmerizing stretch of golf was an intelligent question in the midst of a major meltdown.
Spieth’s tee shot on the 13th hole went some 75 yards right of the fairway, and he was told it bounced off a spectator’s head into even more trouble. The ball eventually was found nestled in thick grass on the slope of a dune so steep that Spieth could barely take a stance, much less swing a club.
He had nowhere to go. He only had the presence to ask a rules official, “Is the range out-of-bounds?”
No, it wasn’t.
That allowed Spieth to take a one-shot penalty for an unplayable lie and go back as far as he wanted on a line from the ball to the flag. That led him to the range, right in the middle of the equipment trucks. He was able to move some more to get the trucks out of his line, and then it was a matter of the shot.
He couldn’t see where he was going because of the dunes. He didn’t know how far — Spieth thought it was about 270 yards, caddie Michael Greller thought it was 230 yards, and the caddie persuaded him to hit a 3-iron .
It came up short of a pot bunker near the green, and Spieth pitched over it to about 7 feet.
“The putt on 13 was massive,” he said.
Kuchar, who had to wait 20 minutes for the ruling, missed his 15-foot birdie putt and only led by one. Just not for long.
What followed was a sequence that takes its place in major championship lore.
Spieth hit a 6-iron that narrowly went in the cup , leaving a short birdie putt. He holed a 50-foot eagle putt on the next hole to regain the lead. And he followed that with a 30-foot birdie putt for the 16th. And when Kuchar holed a 20-footer for birdie on the 17th to stay in the game, Spieth poured in a 7-footer on top of him.
Kuchar shot 69 and didn’t make a mistake until it no longer mattered. Imagine having a one-shot lead, going par-birdie-par-birdie, and being two shots behind.
“I can only control what I do, how I play,” Kuchar said. “Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way in the finishing stretch.”
Next up is to see if Spieth can finish off the slam.
He joined Jack Nicklaus as the only players to get the third leg of the career Grand Slam at age 23. Spieth now goes to the PGA Championship next week in North Carolina with a chance to be the youngest to win them all.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Spieth said. “Absolutely a dream come true.”
That’s about what it looked like over the final, wild hour. A dream.
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