When Jordan Spieth completed his final round at Royal St George’s and turned to acknowledge the crowd, he kept his head down. Perhaps it was the evening sun cutting over the gallery that caused him to avert his eyes. Or perhaps it was something else. A sense of disappointment, maybe.
The former boy wonder of golf had to watch Collin Morikawa assume that mantle, as the 24-year-old won the Open at the first time of asking. But Spieth, 27, is on the back of one of the biggest comeback seasons in golf, and it was only the consistency of the champion, and – yes – a few glaring errors, that stopped the Texan from winning a fourth major title himself this weekend.
After signing for a final round of 66 and finishing 13 under for the tournament, Spieth confessed that he had been looking for “things to break” at the hotel on Saturday night. He had bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes on his third round, the latter an awful miss from two feet following a lapse in concentration, and a finish that left him out of the final group.
“The finish yesterday, was about as upset as I’ve taken a finish of a round,” Spieth said. “I walked in and wanted to… I said, ‘is there something that I can break’? I knew that it was so important because I would have been in the final group.
“I had to regroup 18 hours later and you have to be so precise here. You need some good numbers. I kind of fatted it off 6 and went to 7 thinking, Okay, now we’re going for everything, and we’re going to see what happens.”
The 6th was a bogey, the second of the afternoon for Spieth as the hangover from the night before visibly lingered. But the internal monologue worked: Spieth came out swinging on the par five 7th. Up on the green in two shots, he was left with a long putt and a line that required delicacy. He sized up the opportunity from every angle but took the shot quickly: left then right then left and in for an eagle.
Spieth birdied the ninth and the 10th, then the 13th and the 14th, the latter delivered with a manner of calmness that speaks of a champion. Spieth sent his first shot well short of the pond that stretches across the 547-yard par 5, the second just short of a ring of bunkers protecting the green. The third, a wedge, lifted the ball onto the crest of a small peak behind the pin. The fourth was a perfectly measured putt.
After winning the open in 2017, a year younger than Morikawa is now, Spieth was the number two ranked player in the world. He didn’t win another title for four years, by which point his ranking had crashed to 92. Only by claiming the Valero Texas Open on home turf this spring have things begun to change around. Following the Open he has re-entered the list of the world’s top 15 players.
With the last four holes to play, anticipation began to rise amongst the wild grass. Spieth’s arrival at each green was met with bigger and bigger cheers, but here he couldn’t quite deliver. The 15th offered another birdy chance, a tough one that came up short as the ball veered away from the cup at the last. At the 16th he came close again, from all of 50ft, but no dice. The 17th was the most presentable opportunity of the lot and the putt the wildest. Spieth saved a par but the chance of the championship was gone.
“My putting is not where I want to be, at all”, Spieth said afterwards. “It’s progressing the right direction, but it’s not where it has been. And I know what needs to do to get there, and it’s just very difficult to do.
“It’s rounds like today or this week, major championship rounds, where you have to obviously test not only your touch out here, but also a lot of knobs and breaking putts and trust lines. It’s a good test for it.
“I just wasn’t extremely sharp with the putter this week… and it’s been a little bit kind of here and there this year. My bad weeks have been okay and my good weeks are really good, but I needed to put in a little bit of work between yesterday’s finish to today’s round to think that I could go out and confidently go and stroke enough to win.”
It was a dispassionate assessment of his performance which few who watched Spieth play this week will take issue with. But while there were shortcomings in his game, he still finished a clear second at Royal St George’s. If these are the downsides that need to be deal with, the upsides are more numerous. Perhaps Spieth’s gaze at the last was just him keeping his eyes on the prize.