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.

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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 playos 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 playos be­fore fail­ing to re­tain his card through the Web.com playos, 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 playos, 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 playo”s as “po­ten­tially on the brink of playing a re­ally good patch of golf.”

The 40-year-old’s pos­i­tive out­look com­bined with his e”ort 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 playo”s 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 eŒort 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.

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