After an opening round 71 that put him well outside the cutline, some felt that it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Jordan Spieth missed weekend play at the John Deere Classic, so he could show up earlier at St Andrews to prepare for the Open Championship. Spieth, of course, won the first two majors of the year, and is gunning to win his third consecutive major and looking to achieve golf’s most difficult accomplishment — the Grand Slam (winning all four majors in one season) — and has been criticized for his decision to remain loyal to the event where he won his first title on the PGA Tour.
However, naturally, Spieth had other plans. He didn’t make it easy on himself, per se, nor did he have his A-game, but he posted rounds of 64, 61 and 68 for a 20-under total to get into a sudden death playoff with Tom Gillis, a 46-year-old journeyman that has never won on the PGA Tour. The 21-year-old from Texas made par on the second extra hole to secure his fourth title of the year (his other wins came at the Valspar Championship, Masters and U.S. Open).
Spieth didn’t have his best stuff again on Sunday. He got off to a slow start and he trailed by four shots with six holes to play. That’s when he went into Spieth-mode. He roared back into contention with birdies on five of his last six, including a spectacular chip-in on the par-3 16th.
Spieth nearly won in regulation, but missed a 30-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. He almost took care of business again on the first playoff hole, but he lipped out his 33-foot birdie attempt. Gillis topped his second shot into the water on the second extra hole, and as a result, he essentially handed Spieth the trophy, who made par with ease.
“What an incredible week,” said Spieth. “I started off so slow, and to be able to shoot 20-under in three rounds is obviously nice momentum.
“I took advantage on Tom’s miss on the second playoff hole, and I clubbed down from a 6-iron to a 7-iron after his ball went into the water, just so I could go ahead and rip it right at the middle of the green with a straight one, put a great swing on the ball and two solid putts. So really the finish there when I really didn’t feel like tee to green I had much today gives me a lot of momentum to draw on, if I don’t have my best stuff, that we can still close strong.”
What might be scary — or extremely impressive, depending on how you want to see it — is that Spieth wasn’t playing with his A-game, but still managed to pull off the victory.
“When I say I didn’t have my best stuff, I didn’t have my best stuff for those first 12 holes or so” he said. “I certainly turned it around there with some good short game and good putts down the stretch, and then a couple of nice iron shots.
“It’s very satisfying to be able to have stretches where I played poorly and to still come out with a win, just those middle two rounds were just good enough to get the job done when I was only 3-under in the other two rounds combined, which would have missed the cut if I’d put them together.
“Not everybody is going to play well the entire time, but it’s good to know that when I am feeling that spark, that we’re able to get it that deep, to 20-under.”
Spieth struggled the most with his driver and plans to work on straightening that out ahead of this week’s Open Championship.
“I’m just not getting deep enough into my swing,” he said. “I’m not patient enough in my back swing on the golf course. It’s easy on the driving range because, you know, there’s no penalty to it. But on the golf course when there’s trouble in play, I’m getting a little steep. I’m not getting all the way around, and therefore at the top of my swing my club’s not pointed at the target. I’m hitting it where my club’s pointed, but that’s pretty far to the right.
“I’ve got some work to do, obviously, because the driver is a very important club at St Andrews — more than many other golf courses. With my longer clubs, I’m going to have a lot of repetitions this week. It’s going to be a quick turnaround, so I can grab these feels with my short game, continue to work on them. But I do need to really fine tune my driver through the 3-iron there.”
With the lush conditions at St Andrews this week, distance is a massive advantage. Spieth isn’t the longest player in the world, but as we’ve seen, he’s managed to make up for it with other parts of his game, particularly around the greens.
Spieth, who is now one victory shy (with five) of tying Tiger Woods for most wins on Tour before the age of 22, shrugged off the aforementioned critics that questioned his decision to play the John Deere Classic instead of, say, the Scottish Open, which is contested on a links course, or simply arriving early to St Andrews for extra preparation and the chance to play more practice rounds.
“I really didn’t care anyway,” said Spieth, laughing, referring to the naysayers. “No, I came here for a reason, and we accomplished that reason, and certainly have some momentum going into next week.”
He added: “This tournament means a lot to me. I mean, this jumpstarted my career. It took it to a different level when I had some momentum, to close it out. I’d probably be — I said it earlier, probably six months back — six months to a year further back in my career had that shot not gone in and then survived that playoff (at the John Deere Classic in 2013), given I wouldn’t have been in the playoff, the Presidents Cup, my world ranking would have been down given I’d played the playoffs extremely well that year with a couple of top 5s including a runner up.
“So I would have been setback a little bit starting the next year, could have played a different schedule. Who knows what could have happened. So it means a lot to me. This is a tournament that I truly love being at.”
He’s not concerned about feeling prepared enough to take on the Old Course, as he’s been playing it on his simulator and he has had a game plan in place for the majors prior to the start of the year. In fact, with the lush conditions at St Andrews this year, Spieth thinks his week at TPC Deere Run might have been better preparation, not to mention shooting 20-under gives him added confidence.
“Only thing I’ve heard so far is that it’s playing softer than usual, which that’s kind of nice for having come from here,” said Spieth. “That’s why I think this is advantageous to feel like you’re making a lot of birdies, feel like you need to make a lot of birdies. That way you can be maybe a little more aggressive than you would normally be starting a major championship, but I think it all depends on getting over there and establishing a game plan.”
His only concern is jetlag and getting adjusted to the time difference — St Andrews is six hours ahead of Moline, Illinois.
“The only hard part is obviously the time zone adjustment, but there’s enough daylight there where I can play either really early or really late,” said Spieth. “So I’ll pick a game plan as we get on the flight here. I’ll talk to my instructor who’s over there and we’ll figure out what’s the best option to know St. Andrews as well as we can.”
Spieth also has the opportunity to supplant world no. 1 Rory McIlroy atop the rankings with a win at St Andrews. With all that he’s accomplished this season and with McIlroy out with a badly sprained ankle, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him (in fact, I’m betting on him).