The list of golfers who have won three major championships runs 45 deep now that Jordan Spieth has added his name to that not-so-exclusive club. But because of the lightning-fast way the 23-year-old Texan landed there while claiming the 2017 Open Championship on Sunday, he stands as tall as nearly anyone who has played the game.
Clearly, Spieth’s dynamic turnaround on the last five holes at Royal Birkdale has elevated him from being golf’s coming attraction to a marquee performer who’s certain to deliver thrills for a solid decade, maybe two.
For the moment, his key accomplishment is nailing down three corners of the career grand slam before his 24th birthday arrives next week. The only other man to be that brilliant that early in life is Jack Nicklaus.
It of course remains way too soon to predict Spieth will match all of Nicklaus’ epic accomplishments. But hey, with the way Tiger Woods’ physique is failing him, wouldn’t you agree that Spieth has the better chance of chasing down Nicklaus’ record 18 wins in majors?
But it shortchanges Spieth to view him purely through his three majors and 11 total tournament wins as a pro.
A big part of what makes Spieth stand out is that, really, he doesn’t stand out that much. He’s an everyman kind of player, and there’s nothing about the way he strides onto the green that makes him imposing or intimidating.
Even at this Open, he missed about as many fairways as he hit, and his vulnerability was evident after he dropped the three-shot lead he took into the final round after just four holes.
Among his peers, Spieth sorely lacks the driving power of a Rory McIlroy, and if he ever arm wrestled Dustin Johnson, he might break a bone.
He doesn’t have the blonde bomber look that Nicklaus wore so well in his prime, nor does he possess the aura that once made Tiger loom as unbeatable.
But Sunday, Spieth solidified his place as the best shot-maker in the game today by staging one of the greatest U-turns in major championship history on the 13th hole.
His tee shot there was so wayward to the right that Spieth clasped both hands to his head in horror and disbelief. The NBC crew speculated that it might have been the worst tee shot of Spieth’s pro career, and Johnny Miller all but begged Spieth to tee it up again rather than try to salvage the disaster.
Instead, Spieth courageously took a drop in a forlorn area that seemed like miles from the fairway and banked all his hopes on a totally blind shot that had to clear a steep and foreboding ridge.
“I hope he can pull this off,” Miller intoned on the NBC broadcast, with zero hope or optimism in his voice. “But in my mind he should have gone back to the tee, for sure.”
Then the golfing equivalent of witchcraft happened, but only after more than 20 minutes of stoic deliberations. Spieth’s shot took a magic carpet ride and he turned No. 13’s bad luck upside down, escaping with one of the best bogeys you’ll ever see.
As signature moments go, this one ranks right alongside the famous parking lot shot that brought Seve Ballesteros the British Open title in 1979.
It was pure defiance of conventional wisdom, gutsy golf at its best, and it was celebrated as such by Nicklaus in a tweet.
Stop and think where Spieth would have been if the shot had gone wrong. He likely would have left the 13th with a crooked number on his scorecard and a deficit of three or more strokes instead of just one.
Far more importantly to his image and long-term confidence, he was flirting with taking on an indelible reputation as a choker. His latest failed chapter, if it had happened, would have renewed memories of the two ker-plops he made into Rae’s Creek at the 2016 Masters, costing him a five-stroke lead and what had seemed like a certain second green jacket.
Instead, Spieth’s miracle shot ignited the kind of charge that created Arnie’s Army while assuring his burgeoning fandom that he’s not a guy who plays for second place.
Spieth played the next four holes at five under, including an eagle putt from 48 feet on No. 15 that not even Hollywood would wedge into a script and expect it to be believed.
Best of all, while accepting the Claret Jug as champion, Spieth even had the presence of mind and the humility to apologize to runner-up Matt Kuchar for his stunning shot on No. 13.
Said Spieth during the trophy ceremony, per Golfweek, “I took about 20 minutes to play one of my shots today, and Matt took it in stride, smiled, and there’s not many people that I think would’ve done that, and it speaks to the kind of man that you are.”
That’s called class. And along with wisdom, courage and tenacity, it’s just one of the many qualities we’re sure to keep seeing from Spieth as he climbs his way up the leaderboard of major champions.
Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.