Spieth leads British by three after field goes low
southport, england — Poor, poor Royal Birkdale. Somebody switched off its wind in the wee hours of Saturday. Its fairways and greens lay softened and incapable of proper rudeness. The vile vegetation of its rough, fattened up with the blankets of rain that came Friday, lacked golf balls to devour, so true were so many of the unburdened shots. “Royal Birkdale, notoriously difficult, had just become one of the easier golf courses that we play for one round of the year,” said a morning TV viewer named Spieth.
By the time this Jordan Spieth finished Saturday, the 123-yearold course, one day after a bonanza of brutality, would reel with the first 62 in the 442-event history of men’s major golf — by South African Branden Grace — as well as a 64, five 65s, eight 66s, seven 67s, eight 68s and 13 69s. This robbed Spieth of the option of safety and presented him with complication. He solved that complication with a suitably aggressive 65, and he reshaped the tenor of the 146th British Open.
Now it might serve as another peg in identifying the next great American golfer. If Spieth, whose 11 under par after 54 holes left him three shots ahead of Matt Kuchar and six ahead of U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, can prevail, he will turn the lens all the way back to 1963. On July 21 of that year, Jack Nicklaus won his third major championship, and third different one, at 23 years and six months old, at the Dallas Athletic Club.
Now comes a Dallas golfer, Spieth, who won’t turn 24 until Thursday and would become the youngest since Nicklaus all those 54 years ago with three majors and three-quarters of the career Grand Slam, surpassing Tiger Woods, who was 24 years and almost six months old when he won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Further, Spieth could put the best salve yet on his foremost career boo-boo, his inconceivable collapse from a five-shot lead with nine holes to play at the 2016 Masters. In the five majors between then and now, he entered Sunday 16 shots behind, 17 shots behind, eight shots behind, two shots behind and 16 shots behind.
Now he operates from a weeklong command.
“I think I’m in a position where it can be very advantageous, just everything I’ve gone through, the good, the bad and everything in the middle,” he said. “I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling on one. So it was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward.”
He predicted a “day that will be emotionally draining and difficult to stay very neutral in the head,” but he noted that he has “conserved energy in two of the three rounds” here and that he knows “how draining it can be and how important it is to conserve it.” He will tote along his 8-for-his-last-9 record when leading after 54 holes, with that Masters the oddball in the bunch.
He will spring from a Saturday he mastered with five birdies and zero bogeys, a Saturday with gaudy early scoring that made it “pretty tough mentally,” he said, because it mandated aggression. He will take along the help of the birdies he plucked from Royal Birkdale’s dunes at Nos. 3,7, 8, 15 and 18, the last with an approach that teetered but held at the edge of the green, leaving him “happily shocked” enough to roll in a tricky 15-footer.
With his sturdy brain and allaround game, he had wound up atop a mountain of his colleagues’ feats. It was five groups before Grace when Jason Day walked off with his 65 and said, “I think this is a good formula to see maybe the first 62 in a major championship.” As Day spoke, Grace, with his four top-five finishes in the last nine majors, went about soaring while unaware what it meant. “Whether you guys believe me or not, I honestly didn’t know” the significance, Grace said.
That significance, he would learn just after his three-foot par putt on No. 18 plunked down, from his accomplished caddie Zack Rasego, who bagged the 2010 Claret Jug at St. Andrews with Louis Oosthuizen. Thirtyone times, men had shot 63s at major tournaments. Those included arguably the greatest round ever played, Johnny Miller’s closing 63 at the diabolical Oakmont near Pittsburgh in the 1973 U.S. Open. They included the 63 that 24-year-old Justin Thomas just shot last month in the U.S. Open in Wisconsin, which was 9 under par to Grace’s 8 under par. They included some of the storied names of the sport, from Nicklaus to Woods with Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Nick Price, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy to boot.
Suddenly, a 5-foot-10 29-yearold born in Pretoria had shoved aside them all, at least numerically. Then he claimed to have dwelled “in the zone,” said he had concerned himself with trying “to shoot a number to get myself back in there” and zoomed from 45th place to third before ending up tied for fifth, seven shots behind Spieth. “You still have to do it out there” even on a forgiving course, Grace said, and added, “There’s a lot of spots you want to keep out of on this golf course, and I did it today.”
Dustin Johnson, eight shots back, got his 64 even while gently lamenting only parring Nos. 16 and 17. Paul Casey shot a 67, called it “a scorer’s paradise” and said, “I felt I should have got more out of it.” Shaun Norris, a 35-year-old South African, opened the day playing alone, had his brother on his bag, marveled about the throng at the first tee — and shot a 65. Ian Poulter shot a 71, good on a normal Birkdale day but subpar enough on this that he said, “Three-putted the first, which was poor. It’s a real shame. It’s a real shame.” McIlroy shot a 69 and bemoaned a “bad” swing here and a “wrong” club there. And Kuchar, who played alongside Spieth, said, “There was a hole or two where we were confused on who had the honor, there was a birdie and a birdie and a birdie. And who’s up now?”
Mr. Spieth is up now.
Jordan Spieth, who turns 24 on Thursday, fired a 5-under 65 in the third round and will look to capture his third career major Sunday.
Branden Grace of South Africa became the first player to shoot a 62 in a major and is tied for fifth place.