British OpenJuly 16, 2015

More proof that Jordan Spieth can't do much wrong, charges out for opening 67

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- If you're into symbolism, the defining moment of Jordan Spieth's opening day at St. Andrews came in his post-match press conference, about halfway through. The R&A divides the flash area into two stages -- it makes it easier to hold two important press conferences simultaneously, while a third is happening in the interview room five minutes away -- and Spieth was holding down the right side of the tent when Tiger Woods walked in. The 14-time major winner had a pained, weary expression on his face when he saw Spieth, but I find myself doubting that Spieth himself was the inspiration, since the look persisted through the entire press conference and, I have to assume, preceded it by about five hours.

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What I can say is that the difference in energy was palpable -- Spieth's satisfaction emanated outward, in tame jokes and a slight smile and a persistent optimism, while Tiger, withdrawn, vacuumed any remnants of positivity into his expanding halo of misery. I think it was even a few degrees cooler on his side of the room, but that might have been the human density -- some broke off from Spieth when Tiger entered, but not as many as you'd expect. ESPN and the New York Times stayed put, along with the British giants, and Spieth barely seemed to notice the fading legend across the room.

He finished his opening round with a 67, tearing up the front nine with a slight helping wind to shoot to -5, and surviving the back nine at even par, including a long, winding birdie putt on 18 to re-capture the momentum that had fallen into stasis through the difficult closing stretch. Dustin Johnson currently leads the tournament at seven under, but even though he played in Spieth's group, it still somehow feels like the 21-year-old Grand Slam hopeful stands atop the leader board. Knowing how great he's become at the act of winning -- something he struggled with in 2014 before flipping a switch almost literally overnight -- a two-shot deficit to Dustin Johnson, or anybody else, feels like a very minor nuisance. (Especially considering DJ's recent decision to blame his Chambers Bay loss on the verb 'bounce.')

He has the initiative, his caddie is a savant who went so far as to hit the course at 4 a.m. this morning in order to scout the pin placements and atone for the preparation deficit they inherited by spending last weekend in Illinois, and even luck seems to be on his side: His worst shot of the day came off the tee on 18, when he duck-hooked the drive. The error would have been disastrous on almost every other hole, but on 18, it rolled harmlessly into the first fairway, leaving a simple 92-yard wedge to the green. He's reached a state right now where, no matter what happens, a kind of belief follows him around, even among the non-spiritual. When he birdied the last hole to reach 67, a writer I was walking with looked at me in surprise.

"When did he lose a stroke?"

"The last hole," I said, surprised because we had both witnessed it moments earlier. "He missed the par putt."

"Oh right," he said. "I don't think my brain would allow me to believe he could miss from there."

I found that pretty insightful -- Spieth is so good right now that common errors seem almost unthinkable, to the point, maybe, that we put them out of mind moments later, like an unpleasant mirage. The true believers ignore the anomalies. Golf usually has a way of shattering this subtle faith with fluctuations of skill and luck and circumstance, but for now, we believe in his ascent to such a degree that even at five under, it already feels like he's reached the summit.

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