British OpenJuly 20, 2015

How the Slam was lost

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland  -- The sequence that first convinced me Jordan Spieth would win the British Open began on the 7th green. By then, the early insurgent wave had been forgotten. The wind and rain had arrived as promised, but not to obliterating effect, and the Old Course yielded birdie after birdie to the real contenders. They attacked in a bold, fearless way that, as Spieth himself would later note, felt very unlike the final round of a major.

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On No. 6, Spieth made his second straight birdie to reach 14 under, gave a quick fist pump, and nodded vigorously on the next tee when a woman shouted, "You're making Texas proud, Jordan!" Now the rain came harder, and the clouds, low and scudding a day earlier, drifting like flotillas, now congealed into a thick veil -- a series of thin gray shrouds covering the sun, one on top of the other, until the grayness deepened and took on an impermeable density. On the green, Spieth couldn't help but look over at Adam Scott, putting on the 11th, and the standard bearer who displayed his score: -15. With scores dropping everywhere, each putt felt critical, each bogey like a death sentence.

Spieth took an aggressive stab at his birdie putt, but he missed. The scoreboard gave more bad news: Zach Johnson moved to seven under after 12 holes and 16 under for the tournament. It was an incredible score, and a disheartening one, because it was impossible to be unbiased out on the course. Each birdie by Johnson, or Scott, or Marc Leishman, or Louis Oosthuizen, was an affront to Spieth, and an affront to Spieth was an affront to history. The possibility of winning, and claiming the third major of the year, had become more tangible than ever before, and because of that it had also become more painful. If he had missed the cut, or faded on Saturday, this would have been easy, because nobody can really expect a player to follow through on that kind of history. Now, though, the possibility was distinct, and a loss was no longer just a loss. A loss was an act of devastation -- a storyline chopped off at the knees.

And the strange part of golf is that sometimes, you can't face your opponent. Zach Johnson had already made the turn into the clubhouse, out of sight, safely removed from confrontation and influence. I squinted my eyes in the direction of where I knew he must be, and in the misty distance I saw St. Andrews -- the spires and the stone of the ancient town. But I didn't see Zach Johnson. He was like a ghost haunting Spieth, invisible but dangerous -- a spirit from delivering ominous prophecies from the future: "This is how you're going to lose."

At that moment, the rain fell harder, slanting below the umbrellas in the wind. Spieth holed his par putt, but on the par-3 8th, his ball flew right, headed for the flag marking the 10th hole on the shared green.

"Jordan, come on, man!" he shouted at himself. "Wrong pin!"

Maybe it was the wind he had in mind before sent his long putt skidding far past the hole and over the green -- it blew in his face, and it's possible he misjudged its effect and overcompensated. The return putt wasn't much better, and when he missed his bogey attempt for a disastrous and uncharacteristic 4-putt, a nearby marshal summed up everybody's feelings: "I don't think we'll ever witness that again!"

Back to 12 under. Was it the fatal cut? Was this really the moment when the dream of a Grand Slam ended? I remembered the Spieth I knew in 2014, from the Masters and the Players Championship and the Ryder Cup match against Graeme McDowell, and how he'd flail under the weight of his own disappointment, gradually growing more and more discouraged, engaged in open self-sabotage. This was the anti-climax I feared, and I had the thought that he needed to birdie the next two holes, one after the other, to put it behind him.

The ninth green. Spieth backs off his birdie putt.

"Guys on the phone, we can hear that!" yelled his caddie Michael Greller, facing the grandstand.

"Mike, gust of wind," Spieth says hurriedly, ending the lecture. "It was a gust of wind."

Greller turns back to the fans. "OK, thanks!"

Spieth makes the putt.

Tenth fairway, and Spieth passes Oosthuizen and the amateur Paul Dunne coming down the eighth. These will be the last golfers he encounters on the course. On the way out, the traffic came and went beside him. On the way in, he'll be alone. Framed by the sand dunes of the North Sea, he hits a short wedge into the green and makes his second straight birdie.

Back to 14 under, and I remembered that this wasn't the Spieth of 2014. This was the alchemist, who took the pressures of becoming golf's crown prince and used them as fuel. Recovery was now a weapon, not a weakness. The weather worsened, and now he had to out-survive the field. But I knew he'd do more -- he'd win.

I knew it again on the 16th hole. He made his par on 11, and rewarded himself with a trip the gorse, and the restroom. He made his par on 12, hitting his approach in front of a violet bed of heather, and the maroon seed heads of bentgrass undulating in the rough, with the dark waters of the Eden Estuary on his right. He made his par on 13 with a nervy wedge from off the green that hit the hole, and may have gone in if he'd pulled the flagstick. He made his par on 14, as a roar came from the 18th green, where Zach Johnson holed his birdie putt to finish at 15 under and better the current clubhouse lead by five strokes. He made his par on 15 as Marc Leishman bogeyed ahead to fall to 15 under as well, setting off a murmur of anticipation in the gallery.

Spieth was now one off the lead, and a chasm had formed between the top five and those, like Scott and Sergio Garcia and Jordan Niebrugge, who had threatened earlier in the day before falling off. The chaos subsided; we knew the wheat, we knew the chaff.

Then came the 16th, when Spieth hit his approach to the front left of the green, about 40 feet from the pin. His round had gone a little static since the recovery, and for whatever reason -- carried off by the tension -- I wrote "how legendary will you be?" in my notebook. It was a legitimate question, not a prediction. I didn't expect him to make it, but I did recognize the potential built into that scene, and I remembered the moments when Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus capitalized under similar circumstances, always one step ahead of expectations -- we love them because they surprise us. Also, I realized that he needed the putt. Leishman could birdie 18 to finish at 16 under, and nobody (except for Billy Horschel, on Monday) makes birdie on the Road Hole.

So when it went in, surprising me even after I'd considered that exact outcome at length, you can imagine the feelings that swept through me, and through us all. Delirium, first, and then then awe. All the battering by the wind, all the rain, all the uncertainty, had paid off, because now we were watching history at the most famous golf course in the world. The gray skies looked beautiful, the herring gulls coasting idly on the wind were poetic, and stone buildings waiting for us on 18 teemed with resonance. Spieth walked past to the 17th tee, said "thanks" to a complimentary marshal, and stood with his hands in his pockets watching Jason Day finish. More than anything else, his impending championship felt like destiny.

But of course it wasn't. The Road Hole came, the rain resumed, Spieth failed to reach in two shots, and missed his short par putt after an excellent pitch. At the instant the ball ran past the hole, kneeling behind a stone wall by the 18th tee, I felt that the magic of the world was drawn away in a sudden, pitiless vacuum. The sense of fate that had gathered like an aspirational thought bubble above our heads when the 40-footer dropped was revealed for the fraud it really was -- there is nothing supernatural to this game, even here in golf's garden of Eden. The momentum of a great shot only lasts until the next shot, and despite one writer's suggestion that Ben Hogan sent the rain on 17 from whichever paradise he now inhabits, in the end this is a physical and psychological sport, not a spiritual one.

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He yanked his drive on 18, made the fatal error of spinning his wedge into the Valley of Sin, and missed the uphill putt. When he finished, he applauded the fans, and he told us afterward that he hadn't considered the history of the moment while he was on the course. Knowing his ability to filter out unwelcome thoughts, I believed him. Aside from a few bad putts, he had played a courageous round in the pit of a cauldron, and that doesn't happen to someone who walks the fairways lost in a dream of surpassing his heroes.

The omens that Zach Johnson sent from ahead turned out to be true -- he won in a four-hole playoff over Oosthuizen and Leishman after a brilliant 66, and Spieth's near-miss will eventually become a footnote, just as Nicklaus and Palmer's near-misses in '60 and '72 are footnotes today. But even if he didn't have history in his head, we had it in ours, and it won't be easy to forget the gift he gave us, of a dazzling and heartbreaking mirage.

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