Spi­eth leads Bri­tish by three af­ter field goes low

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER

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.

PETER MOR­RI­SON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

ANDY RAIN/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Bran­den Grace of South Africa be­came the first player to shoot a 62 in a ma­jor and is tied for fifth place.

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