Spi­eth stays calm in quest for Slam

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jor­dan Spi­eth al­ready has shown a re­mark­able sense of the mo­ment.

He earned his PGA Tour card by hol­ing a bunker shot on the 18th hole and win­ning a play­off.

In the fi­nal round be­fore the Pres­i­dents Cup se­lec­tions, he shot 62 while play­ing with Phil Mick­el­son, who told U.S. cap­tain Fred Cou­ples, “Dude, you’ve got to pick this guy.”

And right when it looked as though Spi­eth might throw away an­other ma­jor, he nearly made an ace and fol­lowed that with an ea­gle on his way to win­ning the Bri­tish Open.

That was his third ma­jor,

and it brought Spi­eth, newly 24, to the grand­est mo­ment of all.

No one has ever won the ca­reer Grand Slam at a younger age. No one has ever com­pleted it at the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

Spi­eth has never ap­peared more re­laxed.

“There will be pres­sure,” he said. “This is a ma­jor cham­pi­onship. This is one of the four

piv­otal weeks of the year that we fo­cus on. So there will cer­tainly be pres­sure. I’m sim­ply stat­ing there won’t be added ex­pec­ta­tions or pres­sure. It’s not a burn­ing de­sire to have to be the youngest to do some­thing, and that would be the only rea­son there would be added ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Spi­eth doesn’t see his great­est chal­lenge as the his­tory at stake. He con­sid­ers it the Quail Hol­low Club course that he has played only one time, and the strong­est field in golf that fea­tures other ma­jor cham­pi­ons who are des­per­ate to make sure the year doesn’t end with­out them adding an­other ma­jor.

Rory McIl­roy comes to mind.

So do Dustin John­son and Ja­son Day.

McIl­roy is a slight fa­vorite, mainly be­cause he has won twice at Quail Hol­low — one year with a 62, the other with a 61 — and has fin­ished out of the top 10 just one time in his seven ap­pear­ances.

“If you’re matched up on Sun­day … you ob­vi­ously want to be able to play against some­body like Rory who has four ma­jor cham­pi­onships and is one of the top cou­ple most ac­com­plished play­ers in this field,” Spi­eth said. “But he is one to fear in that po­si­tion be­cause of what he’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing and how he’s go­ing to do it.”

Fear is not a word Spi­eth uses of­ten.

This week at the PGA Cham­pi­onship is more about be­ing free from the bur­den of try­ing to win a ma­jor this year. He says he hasn’t felt this way since the 2015 U.S. Open at Cham­bers Bay, right af­ter he won the Masters for his first ma­jor.

“Al­most like I’ve ac­com­plished some­thing so great this year that any­thing else that hap­pens, I can ac­cept,” he said. “That takes that pres­sure, that ex­pec­ta­tion away.”

Af­ter win­ning at Cham­bers Bay to get half­way to the cal­en­dar Grand Slam, he felt slightly dif­fer­ent at the Bri­tish Open. There was added pres­sure — if only slightly — and more ex­pec­ta­tions when he con­sid­ered the prospect of win­ning them all in the same year. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nick­laus and Tiger Woods never got that far.

Nei­ther did Spi­eth. He missed a play­off by one shot.

But there was a mo­ment he re­called that il­lus­trates what it means to play freely.

He holed a 50-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead with two holes to go at St. An­drews. In­stead of hit­ting his tee shot over the Old Course Ho­tel to have the best an­gle into the 17th green, he played down the left side — the safe side. The Road Hole Bunker in his way, he missed the green to the right and then missed a 5-foot par putt. A par on the fi­nal hole ended his dream of the Grand Slam.

Look­ing back, Spi­eth said he should have gone down the right side of the 17th hole.

“One of the big­ger re­grets that I’ve had in golf,” Spi­eth said. “If I don’t pull off the shot, I hit it out-of-bounds, big whup. But I didn’t. I went down the left side that day. It was play­ing ex­tremely tough. I didn’t reach the green.”

Was he af­fected by the

added pres­sure? Spi­eth isn’t sure.

“If I was truly free, I wouldn’t have cared,” he said. “I would have taken it down the right side. I thought I could make 4 from the left in­stead of think­ing, ‘This is my best chance to make the best score, even though it brings in a risk.’ That’s the way I feel now. Take the risks.” What does he have to lose? He will be play­ing the open­ing two rounds with Masters cham­pion Ser­gio Gar­cia and U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka, who know the feel­ing.

“You do think what­ever hap­pens, I’ve al­ready won the Masters and it’s amaz­ing,” Gar­cia said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you’re not go­ing to go out there and try as hard you can, be­cause that’s what we do. That’s the only way we know how to play.”

Spi­eth fig­ures he has two decades or more play­ing the PGA Cham­pi­onship if he doesn’t com­plete the slam this week. Only five other play­ers have won all four mod­ern ma­jors — Gene Sarazen, Ben Ho­gan, Gary Player, Nick­laus and Woods.

Then again, none of the five went more than three years be­fore adding the fi­nal leg to the Grand Slam. Palmer and Tom Wat­son spent their ca­reers chas­ing it.

“The more years you go on play­ing PGAs, and if I don’t win one in the next 10 years, then maybe there’s added pres­sure,” Spi­eth said. “And hope­fully, we don’t have to have this con­ver­sa­tion in 10 years.”

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