WHO CAN BEAT SPIETH?
The Emirates Australian Open returns to The Australian Golf Club this month and in a move that follows the lead of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player during their prime, Jordan Spieth will return to mount a challenge for his third Stonehaven Cup.
Jimmy Emanuel takes a look at who stands between Jordan Spieth and a third Stonehaven Cup ahead of the Emirates Australian Open.
Jordan Spieth has been unabashed in his praise and love of Australia, and in particular Sydney, since his maiden Australian Open victory in 2014. Each of his successful trips to our national championship has resulted in a springboard for the following year.
The former World No.1 acknowledges the ability to “kick back” while he’s here as an additional benefit to his successes in Sydney.
“I love Australia it’s my favourite place I’ve ever travelled to, to play golf and the city of Sydney is just one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” Spieth has said.
Spieth will arrive in Sydney for the 102nd staging of the Australian Open from November 23 to 26 in red hot form, which is an ominous sign for the rest of the field. The 24-year-old not only claimed two regular PGA Tour wins in 2017, but he added the Open Championship to his 2015 Masters and US Open major titles.
His most recent competitive appearances came in the FedEx Cup where he finished second behind good mate Justin Thomas on the back of six top-10s in his last eight PGA Tour starts. Then he round out his successful season by leading the United States’ drubbing of the International side at the Presidents Cup in New Jersey.
The World No.2’s game has gone to another level in 2017 after a 2016 that was quiet by his
own lofty standards, where he still managed to win three times around the world. Including at Royal Sydney where he defeated Ashley Hall and Cameron Smith in a nerve jangling playo to secure his second Stonehaven Cup.
And the tournament returns to The Australian Golf Club, which Spieth spoke glowingly of as a “great golf course” when he won there in 2014. The championship’s return to the Kensington course will only further encourage the American in his bid. After all, when he returned to defend his maiden Australian Open title, he fell one shot shy of fairy tale winner and Australian Golf Club member Matt Jones.
“I look back at the win in 2014 at The Australian, which is a great memory, and it definitely helped build momentum for a successful 2015,” Spieth said. “After coming so close again in 2015, it was great to get the Stonehaven Cup back last year.”
Spieth’s two victories in Australia have resulted in major wins the following year but the Texan, who is a keen student of the history of the game, will know that although a third Stonehaven Cup might not ensure a 2018 major victory it will elevate him into an exclusive list of players to have won the Australian Open on three or more occasions.
Player (7), Nicklaus (6), Greg Norman (5), Ivo Whitton (5), Ossie Pickworth (4), Peter Thomson (3), Norman Von Nida (3) and Carnegie Clark (3) have all completed the rare treble in the tournament’s history which dates back to 1904 at the original Australian Golf Club links down the road at Botany.
Spieth will one day certainly be in the Hall of Fame, perhaps as one of the greatest major winners of all-time. So while his name already doesn’t look out of place alongside the aforementioned on the Stonehaven Cup, there will be several home grown and international talents looking to cause an upset at The Australian and claim the trophy for themselves, some for the second and third time.
Chief among Spieth’s challengers is Australia’s highest-ranked player and former World No.1 Jason Day, who makes his much-anticipated individual competitive return to Australia, having not contested an Australian Open since finishing T6 behind Rory McIlroy in 2013 at Royal Sydney.
Day’s absences have been widely discussed, maligned and varied in reason but all will be forgiven if the Queenslander can tame Spieth and Jack Nicklaus’ design 13 years after last competitively teeing it up at The Australian, when the then amateur tied for 22nd place.
“It’s a tournament I’ve always cherished. To win our national Open would be a dream come true,” Day said upon announcing his Open return. “It’s great to come home and play and be involved with the people who support us so strongly when we’re away.”
If the anticipated shootout between Day and Spieth is to occur the Aussie will need to find form close to that of 2016, when he ascended to the top of the world ranking and appeared destined for a long stint there, before struggling in 2017. With inconsistent form and a schedule that stopped as many times as it started, primarily due to personal reasons, to blame.
Despite his infrequent visits, Day will have the partisan home crowd on his side particularly as it appears he will tackle Spieth in the absence of Australia’s next two highest-ranked players – Marc Leishman and Adam Scott.
Leishman is set to miss the Open after his best year on the PGA Tour where he claimed two victories, while 2009 champion Scott was yet to commit to the event at the time of going to press, but will instead play the Australian PGA Championship a week later.
Scott did, however, commend Spieth’s commitment to Australian golf during an interview earlier this year.
“It is fantastic and exciting news Jordan will return to defend his title,” Scott said. “It is also a
I LOVE AUSTRALIA IT’S MY FAVOURITE PLACE I’VE EVER TRAVELLED TO, TO PLAY GOLF AND THE CITY OF SYDNEY IS JUST ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITIES IN THE WORLD. – JORDAN SPIETH
big boost in general for Australian golf and also for everyone who is involved with organising the Australian Open. It also sets up for another great week in Australian golf.”
Scott did surprise all by returning to America for the FedEx Cup playos just weeks after the birth of his second child after originally planning to remain in Australia, and fans here will hope a similar late change of plans occurs again.
Outside of Leishman, Cameron Smith was the only Australian to win on the PGA Tour in 2017 and after falling agonisingly short in sudden death last year, will look to go one better at this year’s championship. With the Queenslander’s stellar play at the 2016 event and his victory at the Zurich Classic alongside Jonas Blixt, who will join Smith at The Australian, placing him firmly among this year’s pre-tournament favourites.
Smith’s third and fourth rounds of 68 and 66 were the lowest combined weekend total last year and the 24-year-old thrives in big moments. His tie for 4th at the 2015 US Open came courtesy of clutch play on the final day and it was Smith, the junior in his combination with Blixt, who stood up during the playo to win the team’s Zurich Classic.
If the slightly built Queenslander is near the lead on Sunday, Spieth will know to keep a keen eye on him perhaps above all others, particularly if wind is a factor.
“I’m from Australia. We grow up in this kind of stu,” Smith says nonchalantly of playing in strong winds.
For his part, Blixt arrives in Australia for a well-earned working holiday having climbed back to the top of the game after a back injury threatened to prematurely end his career. And the Swede mustn’t be discounted as a three-time PGA Tour winner and former Masters runner-up, even after his significant form dip since combining with Smith.
Like Blixt, Spieth’s fellow American Zac Blair travels to Australia on a working holiday, with the golf course architecture bu reportedly visiting some of Australia’s most heralded courses while in town for his second Australian Open. He missed the cut at The Australian in 2014.
Despite a torrid end to the 2016/17 PGA Tour season, which saw Blair finish one place outside the season ending playos before failing to retain his card through the Web.com playos, the 27-year-old made a solid start to the new season tying for 30th at the Safeway Open.
Blair’s straight driving and calculated play are well suited to The Australian, particularly with the fairways expected to play hard and fast after a warm and dry start to Spring that will lessen the disadvantage of Blair’s relative lack of distance.
In contrast to Blair, 2016 Australian PGA champion Harold Varner III scraped into the FedEx Cup playos, securing himself a job for next year. With his future assured the American once again appears to be hitting his straps in
IT’S A TOURNAMENT I’VE ALWAYS CHERISHED. TO WIN OUR NATIONAL OPEN WOULD BE A DREAM COME TRUE. – JASON DAY
time for his title defence at RACV Royal Pines and looks likely to add the Australian Open to his schedule. It wouldn’t surprise if he was in the mix in Sydney thanks to his combination of power and ball flight control.
Varner’s fellow past PGA champion Greg Chalmers also shares a similarity with Spieth as a fellow two-time Australian Open champion, with an historic three-peat to mean more to 44-yearold Chalmers than perhaps any other member of the exclusive list. Having first won his national title way back in 1998 at Royal Adelaide before claiming win number two 13 years later at The Lakes
“There are only a couple of tournaments in the world that mean more to me than the Australian Open and it’s always special to come home and challenge again,” Chalmers said.
The West Australian claimed his first PGA Tour victory in 2016 with his trademark outstanding putting the catalyst for the careerchanging win but has struggled throughout 2017 missing more cuts than he made. Despite his disappointing form, however, Chalmers can never be discounted when playing at home.
“I don’t think many had me down as a huge chance the couple of times I have managed to win, so who knows, maybe I can surprise a few more in Sydney again,” said Chalmers of sneaking in under the radar.
Geo Ogilvy’s game has been seemingly reinvigorated of late and the Victorian possesses one of the best Australian Open records alongside Chalmers.
The winner in 2010 at The Lakes, Ogilvy has remarkably missed only one Open (2000), and one cut (2003) since making his debut in 1995, when he claimed low amateur honours, and is the owner of nine top-10 finishes in the tournament.
Having shown glimpses of his best golf over the closing stages of the PGA Tour season, the 2006 US Open champion arrives in form having described himself during the playos as “potentially on the brink of playing a really good patch of golf.”
The 40-year-old’s positive outlook combined with his eort last year at Royal Sydney, where he was in the mix before a disappointing final day, will have him ready to take on The Australian, despite it been far from his favourite Open venue, with only one top-10 from five appearances.
As the only man to have beaten Spieth in Australia, Jones will start the tournament on his home course as, at the very least, a sentimental favourite. Jones’ season was a miserable one before returning to form in the Web.com playos where he secured his Tour card for the 2017/18 season.
No one knows ‘The Aussie’ better than the 37-year-old, who now bases himself in Arizona. Jones will use that local knowledge to his advantage as he attempts to repeat his remarkable win two years ago after not defending his title at Royal Sydney last year.
After turning professional earlier in the year,
I DON’T THINK MANY HAD ME DOWN AS A HUGE CHANCE THE COUPLE OF TIMES I HAVE MANAGED TO WIN, SO WHO KNOWS, MAYBE I CAN SURPRISE A FEW MORE IN SYDNEY AGAIN. – GREG CHALMERS
Curtis Luck has continued to learn his craft and will arrive at The Australian a better player than last year. When Luck threw his hat in the ring as an amateur at Royal Sydney, playing alongside Spieth for the opening two days and impressing the American with his game.
“Really really impressive short game that Curtis has,” Spieth said of the West Australian, who was ranked as the world’s best amateur in early 2017.
Luck’s former national amateur teammate Travis Smyth will also tee it up in the championship – either as an amateur with a Masters exemption in his pocket and Asia-Pacific Amateur win to his name or as a professional with an Australasian PGA Tour exemption courtesy of his win at the NT PGA earlier this year.
Smyth is a confident player with the game to match, and regardless of whether he is playing for a cheque or low amateur honours, he is sure score well around a course he knows well and is just a stone’s throw from his Sydney base at St Michael’s Golf Club.
If any player is to beat Spieth around one of his favourite tracks it will take a herculean eort and an all-round game not unlike that belonging to the three-time major winner. Who that will be remains to be seen but if the bookies are to be believed, Spieth will narrow the margin in his chase of Player and Nicklaus as the most prolific winners of the Australian Open.
Spieth celebrates his Aussie Open win last year with the course maintenance crew.
Jason Day will be teeing up in his first Australian Open since 2013 at Royal Sydney.
Zurich Classic winners Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith add depth to the field.
PGA Tour players Zac Blair (left) and Harold Varner will add an American flavour to the event.
Geoff Ogilvy has one of the best Australian Open records in this year’s field.