clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Jordan Spieth's British Open challenge will be the toughest of his year

Several factors emerged to make Jordan Spieth's chances of winning The Open unlikely, but that hasn't stopped him before.

On the eve of the Open Championship, the breaks are not going in Jordan Spieth's favor, but he's already shown that it may not matter. A player who doesn't bomb it off the tee wasn't supposed to win the Masters anymore. A 21-year-old should not navigate all the attendant moaning and course complaints of a U.S. Open and win the "toughest test in golf." And no one should win the first three legs of a Grand Slam, unaccomplished since 1954, with such a course knowledge and prep disadvantage and slotted with a tee time facing the worst weather of the week.

The weather impacts the British Open more than any other event. It changes dramatically and quickly, presenting different courses for different players on the same day. It's at this event where the simple draw of your tee time can eliminate you regardless of your best and futile efforts. Tiger Woods, the last player to come to The Open holding the first two majors of the season, had his chance at the Grand Slam swept away by this fickle and misfortunate quirk. He played his third round in conditions that would only be ruled playable at the Open, and they were arguably the worst in the championship's history. A round of 81, the worst of his career at the time, ended his chance at the Grand Slam and it had little to do with his form or ability.

With the caveat that things can change quickly at St. Andrews, Spieth finds himself on the wrong side of the draw at the start of the tournament. It should be clear and smooth for his early Thursday round and he'll need to post a number if the forecast for his second round holds. The Friday afternoon forecast calls for the most severe winds of the week, with gusts around 40 to 45 mph. Even the language of the forecast was unintentionally blunt -- "Winds will be quite complicated."

Tom Watson, a five-time Open champ and a modern master of links golf, said the equipment and young talent won't matter come Friday afternoon when it starts gusting like that. There will be scores in the 80s. Spieth has the better forecast for Thursday, and Friday's outlook may change, but that's what he is facing during this Grand Slam hype on the eve of The Open.

There's also the fact that the 21-year-old may be one of the least-familiar players with St. Andrews in the entire field. He's never played an Open, or even a competitive round, at the Old Course and he was one of the last to arrive in Scotland this week. Spieth has been second-guessed for weeks for committing to and playing the John Deere Classic on another continent last week. It continued even after he won that event on Sunday night and it will persist unless he wins this week.

Questioning his prep routine sucked up a good portion of his pre-Open press conference on Wednesday. In addition to his travel plan, how and who he practiced with when he finally got to Scotland started to be come under scrutiny:

Spieth admitted that the "hardest part is definitely jet lag and probably the fact that we've had perfect weather playing this golf course" during his two quick days of practice. Jet lag and a complete unfamiliarity with playing the course in its typically tough weather conditions is not an ideal way to roll into this immense championship.

Statistics show Augusta National clearly gives advantage to a long bomber these days, but there was shorter-hitting Spieth breaking and matching a week's worth of scoring records in April. The same advantage holds at St. Andrews, which is wide open and favors the big hitters like Dustin Johnson or Adam Scott. Analytics genius Jake Nichols wrote this week, "Every 5 yards greater than the field a player hit their average drive in all events was worth 0.15 strokes/round in 2005 and 0.30 strokes/round in 2010 beyond their normal level of performance." (Read his entire analytics-heavy post before making a pick.) Spieth is not a wimp -- he can still poke it 300 yards -- but he's average off the tee and not close to the bombers who have won so many recent majors like Scott, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy. So he's not holding one of the major statistical advantages at St. Andrews, too.

Experience and distance at St. Andrews and the luck of the tee time draw at The Open are supposed to eliminate players before a ball is even struck. Spieth seems to be on the wrong side of all these things, but we're on fresh ground here. He's the youngest player with two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922 and the youngest U.S. Open winner since 1923's Bobby Jones, who won the Slam.

Spieth has been the best player in the world since December and unlike so many others who have held that title, there's no immediate or apparent reason why. Watch McIlroy rip away on the tee and you quickly realize they're playing a different game. The same for Tiger when he was at his best -- he'd intimidate and overwhelm playing partners on the tee box alone. Spieth doesn't do anything that knocks you back but ends up with the lowest score and holding a trophy. Geoff Ogilvy, one of the more insightful pros out there, said recently:

"He beats you with better golf. He doesn't beat you because he hits it further. Tiger's intimidation was that he always did something amazing. Jordan -- don't get me wrong, his body of work is amazing -- but he doesn't beat you with a crazy par, or a crazy chip-in from the back of the 14th at Muirfield (Village). He just beats you because he's better."

Spieth happily admitted to laughter on Wednesday, "I don't look like an intimidating person." He then echoed some of the Ogilvy sentiments on his game, "I don't hit the ball the furthest, which I think is one of the reasons Tiger intimidated people so much ... but we find a way to get it in the hole."

So we'll start the British Open with all these reasons that Jordan Spieth should not win and continue his Grand Slam chase. But that fits with how he's ascended to the best player in the world and with the first two majors already in his possession.