The second shot was the one. It flew left and fell deep in the crowd gathered around the 1st green. From there, Jordan Spieth chipped on and missed a putt from 12 feet for a bogey. So he had dropped a shot before he had even made it off the 1st hole. The atmosphere crackled as the crowd realised that whatever else had happened in the last three days, whatever else would happen in the next four hours, one thing Spieth’s final round would not be was easy.
The wind was not any stronger than it had been on Thursday, and the rain, so heavy on Friday, hardly fell at all. But the conspicuous difference was that Spieth had to deal with the heavy pressure of being one good round away from winning the Open. For a long while, it looked as though the weight of it would break him.
Spieth made as many bogeys in the first nine holes on Sunday as he did in all the last three days. When Spieth is making a short putt, he keeps his eyes fixed on the hole as he swings. He has such trust in his stroke that he breaks the oldest rule in sport, which is that you have always got to watch the ball. But it failed him here.
There was a three-putt on the 3rd, another on the 4th, a third on the 9th, this last from just five feet. The ball rolled up, caught the back of the cup, ran around and spat back towards him. He hung his head. “Three over through nine,” Spieth muttered to his caddie Michael Greller, through gritted teeth. It meant he and Matt Kuchar were now level.
Spieth’s game was starting to creak. Lurking in the back of his mind, and everyone else’s, memories of his infamous round at the Masters in 2016 when he took a five-shot lead into the second nine on the Sunday, made back‑to‑back bogeys at the 10th and 11th, and then shot a seven at the 12th. “If I don’t win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that,” Spieth said on Saturday, “and if I win tomorrow it has nothing to do with that, either.” He sounded very much like a man who has spent a lot of time trying to convince himself of the truth of his words, as if he was still working to persuade himself that the wound was healed.
Watching Spieth play around that front nine for the final time at Royal Birkdale, you could almost see it tear open again. As if there was a little demon whispering “here we go, Jordan, it’s happening all over again” in his ear while he struggled around the course, trying hard to hold his game together. His swings were wayward, his putting stroke hesitant. Even the birdie he made at the 5th did not seem to help him too much. At the very next hole he squirted his tee-shot left into the gallery, where it bounced off a spectator and fell into the rough. And then, at the 13th, it happened. He collapsed.
Spieth’s tee-shot flew so far right that it landed on the wrong side of the hill beside the fairway. He was left with an unplayable lie, and he spent the next 20 minutes pacing around the driving range trying to find a spot to hit his next shot from, arguing with the officials about whether or not he could go over, or around, or between, two parked up trucks.
For a moment he stood alone on the hill, Lear on the heath, staring at the green. It was a ridiculous business, reminiscent, in its way, of the way Jean van de Velde waded into the water at Carnoustie back in 1999.
On the 12th at Augusta, it was not the mistake Spieth made off the tee that did for him, but the way he took a drop and chopped his third shot back into the creek. Spieth always seems like a man who knows all the angles. This Sunday he spent an interminable amount of time trying to find the right one in to the green.
In the end he clipped his shot over the hill and into a rough dell by a bunker. He was furious with himself. The dropped shot meant Kuchar, who had been waiting all the while, had the lead. And it was then that Spieth showed just how tough, and how good, a golfer he really is. He reached down into the depths of himself, and summoned up the very best he had inside him.
Kuchar’s lead lasted less than a single hole. Spieth came racing back past him again. He came within a couple of inches of making a hole-in-one at the 14th, made a 45ft putt for an eagle on the 15th, a 40ft putt for birdie on the 16th, and hit a wedge to six feet for a birdie on the 17th. Spieth had been trying to keep a lid on his emotions all day long, determined, as he said, to try and stay “very neutral in the head”.
He was convinced this was “the most important thing for me to do”. But now all that anger, that desire, that energy, came rushing out of him. He began to scream and shout, unable, or unwilling, to hold himself back any more, as if overwhelmed by his own bloodyminded refusal to be beaten. In the end it was not Kuchar that Spieth beat, or any of the 154 other players in the field, but that little devil sitting on his shoulder.