Jordan Spieth’s woes after winning the 2017 Open Championship were such that he had cause to ponder whether he had fallen victim to some form of Royal and Ancient curse. Spieth looked invincible at Royal Birkdale in July of that year; by the start of 2021 he sat 92nd in the world. At just 27, he has already encountered golf’s extremes.
Spieth’s win at the Texas Open in April, his first since he lifted the Claret Jug, endorsed a return to form. His 65 to begin the 149th Open continued the theme: Spieth’s first round four years ago included precisely the same number of shots. Louis Oosthuizen’s 64 left the South African once more in a major driving seat but Spieth was the name on everyone’s lips in Kent. Golf loves its redemption tales.
Spieth cannot say whether it will feel different to claim what would be a fourth major given the extent of his earlier slump. “I would hope to answer that question for you in a few days,” he said with a smile. “The path that I’m on and where I’ve been before in the game, I feel really good about my chances going forward. As good as they have been historically.
“I feel like I’ve been trending the right way and certainly had a chance this year already at Augusta. I made some mistakes in the first round and second round that I shouldn’t have made. I very well could have won that golf tournament this year.”
Indeed, it was a quirk that Spieth’s major performances were never disastrous despite glaring technical and confidence troubles in regular events. He tied third in the Masters this year; post-Birkdale there have been a further half-dozen major finishes of 21st or better. The context, of course, is that during 2015 in particular Spieth had looked on course to become the dominant figure in the sport.
“I look back and I had a chance to win at least one of the majors each year when I felt like I had no idea where the ball was going,” Spieth said. “Which, I guess, could be bad and good. Golf is a game played between the ears.” A confident Spieth is a dangerous Spieth.
He sat one over par after three holes, with a birdie blitz from the 5th meaning he reached the turn in 32. Further shots were collected at the 15th and 16th during a stress‑free inward half of 33. An elephant’s ears are not required to pick up moans about St George’s but Spieth, on his first visit, can be considered a fan. He said: “There’s been times recently where I’ve said, ‘Man, I just really don’t like this place.’ I came in here and I’ve been in a really good mood about it. I played a 12-hole loop on Sunday and I thought, ‘This could be a really fun kind of cool, tricky track.’” The R&A must wish it could market that.
Oosthuizen, who like Spieth was part of the morning wave, played the back nine in just 31. His unfussy approach is ideal for this environment. He will treat this 64 the same as a 74 or any number in between.
Brian Harman matched Spieth’s score with Mackenzie Hughes, Dylan Frittelli, Stewart Cink, Benjamin Hébert and Webb Simpson all signing for four-under-par 66s. Frittelli was once a college teammate of Spieth. Collin Morikawa’s 67 stood out given his status as arguably the finest iron player in the world. If St George’s, as expected, becomes increasingly fiery over the closing 54 holes then players will become inclined to leave their woods in bags for tee shots. Advantage Morikawa.
“Being creative is what I do,” he said. “Being creative, especially with my iron shots, that’s what I love to do. I feel like I have huge momentum heading into the next few days.” Slower greens, widely perceived as a leveller, may also be in Morikawa’s favour. Putting is the glaring weakness in his game.
Justin Rose, Jack Senior, Tommy Fleetwood, Andy Sullivan and Danny Willett provided some English scoreboard company for Morikawa. Could it be coming home? “Hopefully Royal St George’s with the St George’s cross is kind of a lucky omen this week,” said Rose. “Right now, I think it’s probably as strong a chance as we’ve had, maybe even ever.” The absence of penalty kicks may help.
Dustin Johnson appeared content with his 68. Not so Brooks Koepka, who skipped media duties after his 69. Koepka endured a torrid day on the greens. Rory McIlroy is due credit for his 70 in the toughest of the day’s conditions. That the Northern Irishman punched the air after holing out for a birdie at the last implied a sense of achievement. He had been two over in whipping winds after seven. “I set myself a target of getting back to level par,” McIlroy said.
Phil Mickelson huffed and puffed his way to an 80. No wonder the US PGA champion looked shellshocked as he stepped from the final green. Weeks after Mickelson, the recipient of about as much media criticism as the Tooth Fairy, threw an almighty strop at a Detroit reporter who shed some light on an iffy gambling episode from bygone days, one can only hope the East Kent Mercury treads carefully.