Flirting with greatness: Why the 2015 Open proved a watershed in the rise of Jordan Spieth

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the dust having settled and world of Golf moving on, Robert Clayden analyses Jordan Spieth’s near miss at The Open. 

There will be no grand slam for Jordan Spieth. The seemingly innocuous finishing hole at golf’s most famous links saw to that. As the twenty-one year old Texan watched his ball grip, spin and disappear into the Valley of Sin, he knew there was to be no repeat of Ben Hogan’s Triple Crown feat of 1953.

This heart-sinking moment would provide shades of those who have come within a mere stroke of collecting the first three majors of the calendar year-Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer the other men to suffer such a fate. Ironically, Palmer’s grand slam dreams were also left in tatters on the 72nd at St Andrews. As much as viewers, fans and critics will lament the demise of Spieth’s  historical dream, standing in history alongside that kind of illustrious golfing company should provide the Texan with an adequate consolation.

As the twenty-one year old Texan watched his ball grip, spin and disappear into the Valley of Sin, he knew there was to be no repeat of Ben Hogan’s Triple Crown feat of 1953.

So remarkable has been the young phenom’s rise to stardom that he is now encircled with an aura of expectancy. The buzz around the man is staggering, and the pressure on his young shoulders to keep winning has become so great that when he doesn’t, the shock prompts a flurry of preposterous criticism.

Despite a hugely impressive second major victory for fellow American Zach Johnson, the headlines fanned the flames of a fierce debate surrounding where exactly Spieth ‘lost’ the Claret Jug. Be it his four-putt on the par three 8th or his bogey at the tremendously challenging road hole, the vast majority of the media attention focused on Spieth’s supposed inability to close out victory in the clutch.

So remarkable has been the young phenom’s rise to stardom that he is now encircled with an aura of expectancy

For a man who has so far this year successfully protected leads at The Masters and the US Open, such a crude assessment of his mettle is both ludicrous and unwarranted. Although the third leg of the slam eventually proved out of reach, the performance of the current world number two at the 144th Open was gritty and told us more about his character than either of his previous major feats of 2015.

Spieth’s historic success at both Augusta National and Chambers Bay earlier this year failed to persuade more sceptical observers of his ability that he had become a mainstay at the top of the game. It is inevitable that the surprise triumphs of a precocious young talent are scrutinised to the nth degree, but there is a hint of hilarity surrounding the arguments of Spieth’s critics.

On his way to securing the green jacket in April, Spieth negotiated the immaculate Augusta fairways in a record-equalling 72 hole score of 18 under par. However, in the wake of his dominant victory, many cited his 2014 2nd place finish in Augusta as evidence of a man who simply loves the course. The Masters has so often in recent times seen the same names atop the leaderboard – Bubba Watson triumphed twice in 2012 and 2014, while Angel Cabrera suffered playoff heartbreak two years ago in a bid to add to his 2009 crown. The naysayers argued Spieth’s maiden major championship was not enough proof that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He would need to consistently compete on courses that provided different, more thorough tests of his golfing ability.

The US Open at Chambers Bay was meant to be this golden opportunity. In stark contrast to the golfing paradise that is Augusta, this quarry turned golf course in Washington would offer a completely different type of challenge. Spieth’s narrow win over Dustin Johnson certainly affirmed much of the hype surrounding the Texan, but it came on a set of greens described as having the consistency of an array of different vegetables depending on which pro you asked. The lottery of putting on these surfaces, coupled with the unique local expertise of his caddy, Michael Greller, again led some to question if Spieth could win in a more neutral context.

Then came his fourth place finish at the Open, a result that erased all these doubts and more. The details that supposedly marred Spieth’s prior major titles; the aforementioned advantages he was meant to have enjoyed heading into The Masters and US Open were non-existent for the Texan as he entered the home of golf. The prospect of a testing week at St Andrews offered little encouragement for the Dallas native.

Indeed, much was made about Spieth’s preparation heading into the championship. Ryder Cup winning captain Paul McGinley was particularly vocal, lambasting his decision to play in the John Deere Classic in Illinois, rather than acclimatise to links golf at the Scottish Open. Such concerns appeared to prove an eventuality as he struggled for the form that saw him acquire his first green jacket at a canter. Widely regarded as the best putter in the game, Spieth amassed thirty seven putts in his second round, while his struggles on the 8th and 17th greens in his final round kept him stranded in the chasing pack.

it is a testament to his talent and consistency that he came so close to history

However, it is a testament to his talent and consistency that he came so close to history, despite not performing at his best. Nothing went his way, yet he remained a continual threat. So often has the phrase ‘an old head on young shoulders’ been applied to Spieth’s mature temperament, and his rare ability to channel outward displays of frustration into sheer determination help to explain his remarkable major record in 2015.

What we can take from Jordan Spieth’s near miss is his ability to consistently compete at major championships with a tenacity that is almost unmatched on the PGA Tour. He can strike fear into his fellow professionals in a way that others cannot. He can adapt his game to conquer even the toughest tests.

Perhaps the only other man in the game right now who embodies such raw competitiveness is Rory McIlroy. On their day, McIlroy and Spieth can leave top class fields in their wake. Even more importantly however, in difficult times the duo have the inherent ability to dig deep and challenge for titles, remaining in striking distance of the top of the leaderboard.

When McIlroy won the 2014 Open, he joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as only the third man to win three majors by the age of 25. Grand Slam or not, you’d imagine that this illustrious trio will be joined soon by the young star from the lone star state.




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