Jordan Spieth flips the switch after a bad start to win his third major at the British Open
Jordan Spieth was standing at the edge.
Not just the edge of a steep hill overlooking the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale — the result of a drive that sailed 100 yards wide right — but the edge of another meltdown in a major championship, this time the British Open.
How he escaped to lift the Claret Jug, holding off a hard-charging Matt Kuchar by three strokes, will be the stuff of golf lore.
With his own grit and determination — and the encouragement of his caddy — Spieth turned a horrendous situation into perhaps the greatest moment of his career, and that includes winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015.
“Today took as much out of me as any day that I’ve ever played golf,” said Spieth, 23, silver trophy at his side. He joins Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win three legs of a career Grand Slam before turning 24.
For Spieth, the win helped salve the sting of his colossal collapse in the Masters last year, when he blew a five-stroke lead over the final nine holes.
For Kuchar, there was the satisfaction of knowing he played a good round on the biggest stage — both of them shot a 1-under-par 69 — but the bitter disappointment of coming oh-so-close to his first major win.
“It’s hard to explain,” Kuchar said. “It’s crushing. It hurts. And it’s an excitement and a thrill to have played well, put up a battle, put up a fight. “You work so hard to get to this position. And to have a chance to make history and win a championship. You don’t get that many opportunities. And to be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it’s a hard one to sit back and take.”
Spieth, who had just four bogeys in the first three rounds (all on Friday), matched that total through his first nine holes Sunday. He wasn’t putting with confidence, and wasn’t as sharp with his shots, even though the weather was relatively good.
Then, on the par-four 13th, disaster. He pushed his drive far to the right, where it landed atop a hill so severe he almost needed a Sherpa to reach it. The ball was in an unplayable spot, so he was able to take a one-stroke penalty and move it no closer to the hole but on the same line as the original shot. He wound up moving it all the way back to the driving range behind him, getting another drop because there were equipment trucks in his way.
What followed was a miraculous three-iron, a blind rope of a shot that flew more than 200 yards and landed within 25 yards of the pin. A chip and a putt, and Spieth completed an unbelievable Houdini act, walking away with a bogey.
“That’s the greatest bogey I’ve ever seen by a mile,” caddy Michael Greller said. “I hope I never see one that great again, because that was stressful.”
As he walked up to that green after that dramatic shot, Spieth made a beeline to Kuchar to apologize for the 21-minute delay that all the drama caused. The two bumped fists. It was the first time all tournament that Kuchar (eight under) had surpassed Spieth (seven under) on the leaderboard.
But that Spieth was able to escape having lost just one stroke was huge, and his caddy knew it.
“I was walking off the green and Michael held me up and said, ‘That’s a momentum shift right there,’” Spieth said. “And he was dead on. And all I needed to do was believe that. … ‘That was a momentum shift even though you lost the hole.’”
On the next hole, the 200-yard 14th, Kuchar hit safely onto the green and Spieth nearly had a hole in one. That tap-in birdie brought the match back to even.
Kuchar would birdie the par-five 15th out of the sand. On any other day, that might have given him back the lead. But not on Sunday. The supercharged Spieth sank a 48-foot putt for eagle, backpedaling when the ball rolled into the cup and pointing to Greller in celebration.
“He’s been making putts like this his whole life,” Greller said. “He said, `Go get that!’ That was right on line, perfect speed, and I happily went and got it.”
Spieth wasn’t done. He birdied 16 with a 30-foot putt, and 17 with a 6-footer after a beautiful chip.
Heading into the final hole, fairways lined with spectators and the massive greenside grandstands filled to the brim, Spieth had a two-shot lead.
Kuchar knew it was essentially over, “but anything can happen in golf.” Once Spieth reached the green in two, though, it was academic. He hit a long putt close, then tapped in the second putt for par. It was over — and Spieth had exorcised a ghost named Augusta.
The win Sunday, he said, got him “over the hill, that, you know, I can close these majors out.”
The PGA Championship — the only major hardware missing from Spieth’s mantle — will be played at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., next month.
Asked what it means to share a record with one of the true legends of the game, Spieth said: “I’m very careful as to what that means going forward, because what those guys have done has transcended the sport. And in no way, shape or form do I think I’m anywhere near that, whatsoever. So it’s a good start, but there’s a long way to go.”
Sunday, however, history was in the bag.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
2 p.m.: This story has been updated with Times staff reporting.
This article was first published at 10:35 a.m.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.