Spi­eth sharp, opens two-shot lead

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

SOUTHPORT, England — Jor­dan Spi­eth ex­pected a rough time at the Bri­tish Open be­fore he even got to the golf course.

He spent Fri­day morn­ing at his rented house in front of the television, watch­ing play­ers bat­tle a re­lent­less wind at Royal Birk­dale, all the while check­ing a forecast that was even worse for when he played in the af­ter­noon.

“It wasn’t a great feel­ing know­ing we were com­ing into some­thing harder than what we were watch­ing,” he said.

Spi­eth did more than just sur­vive.

With a short game as good as it has been all year, and a 3-wood that turned out a lot bet­ter than it looked and led to an ea­gle, Spi­eth seized con­trol with a 1-un­der 69 that gave him a two-shot lead over Matt Kuchar go­ing into the week­end.

Spi­eth turned a bo­gey or worse into an un­likely par by chip­ping in from just short

of the 10th green. And he learned enough from watch­ing TV to know that go­ing a lit­tle long on the par-5 15th would give him a bet­ter birdie chance than play­ing short. So he switched from a 3-iron to a 3-wood, hit it a lit­tle off the neck and watched it run hot and fast some 100 yards along the wet turf to about 18 feet away.

“I mishit the shot, which is prob­a­bly why it looked so gross,” Spi­eth said. “I hit it low off the heel, which is easy to do when you’re try­ing to carve a cut. And it just … one hop, scooted around the group of bunkers there, and then it was ob­vi­ously for­tu­nate to get all the way to the green.”

The flight of that 3-wood looked as ugly as the weather. The out­come was as bright as his chances of get­ting his name on an­other ma­jor cham­pi­onship tro­phy.

Spi­eth was at 6-un­der 134. It was the 12th time he has been atop the leader­board at a ma­jor, in­clud­ing the fourth rounds of the Masters and

U.S. Open that he won in 2015. Spi­eth is the sole leader at a ma­jor for the first time since the third round of the Masters last year, when he was run­ner-up to Danny Wil­lett.

“Any­time you’re in the last group on a week­end in a ma­jor … you get ner­vous. And I’ll be feel­ing it this week­end a bit,” he said. “But I en­joy it. As long as I ap­proach it pos­i­tively and rec­og­nize that this is what you want to feel be­cause you’re in the po­si­tion you want to be in, then the eas­ier it is to hit solid shots and to cre­ate solid rounds.”

Kuchar played in the morn­ing in steadily strong wind, but with­out rain, and pieced to­gether a solid round un­til a few mis­takes at the end for a 71. He was at 4-un­der 136, and it would have been a good bet that he would be lead­ing with the nasty weather that ar­rived.

“I think that’s what peo­ple en­joy about the Bri­tish Open is watch­ing the hard wind, the rain, the guys just try­ing to sur­vive out there,” Kuchar said. “To­day is my day. I get to kick back in the af­ter­noon and watch the guys just try to sur­vive.”

He wound up watch­ing an­other short-game clinic from

Spi­eth.

The key to his round came in the mid­dle, start­ing with a 10-foot par putt on No. 8 af­ter he drove into a pot bunker. The big­gest break came

at No. 10, when the rain was pound­ing Royal Birk­dale. Spi­eth hit into an­other pot bunker off the tee, could only ad­vance it out side­ways, and came up short of the green in

light rough.

“Mas­sive,” he said about the chip-in par. “Noth­ing said ‘4’ about this hole. I feel a lit­tle guilty about tak­ing 4 on the card.”

And he wasn’t through just yet. Spi­eth rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt across the 11th green, and then af­ter watch­ing Hen­rik Sten­son’s tee shot on the par-3 12th land softly, Spi­eth re­al­ized he could take on the flag. He hit 7-iron to 2 feet for an­other birdie, and fol­lowed that with a beau­ti­ful pitch to tap-in range for par on the 13th.

Even so, his work is far from over.

The chas­ing pack fea­tures U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka, who failed to make a birdie but stayed in the hunt with 16 pars in a 72, and Ian Poul­ter with his new­found con­fi­dence, which is grow­ing even higher with the sup­port of the English crowd. Poul­ter shot 70.

Not to be over­looked was Rory McIl­roy, who re­cov­ered from a hor­rific start Thurs­day to sal­vage a 71, and then kept right on rolling. McIl­roy, who was 5 over through the open­ing six holes of the tour­na­ment, ran off three birdies on the front nine.

And much like Spi­eth, he kept his round to­gether with cru­cial par saves early on the back nine when the wind was at its worse.

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