The 2015 Open Championship needed five days and 76 holes but it got a world-class winner in Zach Johnson, who now has a Claret Jug to go with a green jacket. The Open also provided several important revelations about the golf industry itself, the professional game and its biggest past and present stars. Here are five.
1. Jordan Spieth is young and probably has more majors ahead of him, but this could be the best summer and stretch of play in his career. We don't know, and after the round, even the 21-year-old told ESPN it was hard coming so close because "how many chances do you get?"
Media and fans, and even other players, have positioned Spieth as the golden child of this game who can do little wrong. He's going to be over-credited. People are and will be tripping over each other to praise him in whatever way they can. That's going to hit a saturation point and there will be backlash, as there always is. That's how this machine works.
Monday, however, was not the time to feel let down or be critical. Frustrated, maybe, as you were with the 2009 Tom Watson outcome, because it was sooo close. But Spieth's British Open was just as impressive as his dominant Masters win.
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This was going to be the hardest challenge of his year. It seemed more likely that Spieth would slink to the middle of the leaderboard and this Grand Slam dream would be gone well before Monday. He was playing a course where experience and length are supposed to be paramount, with no prior competitive rounds and as one of the average hitters off the tee. He was one of the last players to arrive after playing halfway around the world in farm country last Sunday night. He was supposed to be on the wrong side of the draw, an annual Open tradition wherein the fickle weather wipes out half the field simply based on their tee time.
On two occasions on two separate days, I wrote that Spieth's Grand Slam hopes were evaporating. The first was an awful bogey at the ninth on Saturday, when everyone was making birdies on every hole. He followed it with three straight birdie putts and shot back to the lead on his inward nine. The second was a four-putt double bogey that again dropped him behind a cadre of world-class players on a clustered Sunday leaderboard with just 10 holes to play. That should have been it. Again he responded with two straight birdies, a chip shot that should have holed out, and divined that bomb of a putt on the 16th to again get back to the lead on his inward nine.
The Grand Slam is something that seems as close to impossible as anything in this game. The crushing pressure and simple odds of it, and then those two mess-ups on back-to-back days, should have eliminated Spieth before the 72nd green. The responses were Tiger-like. He was relentless. I'll remember this week for that and given the circumstances, it was as impressive as anything he's done this year.
2. Dustin Johnson's weekend flop was as depressing as any of the priors he has in his major championship career. The "best driver of our generation," as ESPN referred to him last week, was overmatching a St. Andrews course that statistically provides a significant advantage to long hitters. He was an easy pick before the week. Then he raced out to the first round lead, and then hit the 36-hole mark on top. As the rest of the field piled up birdies and pushed the leading number before his tee time on a defenseless Old Course on Sunday, everyone watching kept saying and tweeting ... "yeah, but ... DJ comin'."
At every point before that Sunday round, the majority assumed, as the most talented player in the field, he was the safest bet to just keep pushing the pace. He was the heavy favorite with 36 holes and this was going to be it. His third round fade, one of just 11 rounds over par and the second-worst score on the course, was incomprehensible. Then you set aside the hype of his first 36 holes and remembered those priors. He's so talented and fun to watch but I'm not sure where he goes from here -- probably back to the top of the leaderboard for a good chunk of the PGA Championship.
3. It's tough to not wonder about what Rory McIlroy would have done at St. Andrews. He's the one player in the world that can match, if not exceed, DJ's talent and power off the tee except he's also got four majors and is the world No. 1. On a course that rewards length and was inordinately soft, which we know is where Rory dominates, the safe assumption is that he would have done well to defend his Claret Jug and the playoff might not have been necessary. But he went out for a kickabout and we'll never know.
4. Tiger Woods really may be delusional. ESPN'S Paul Azinger used that word on Thursday in the middle of Tiger's awful first round. We always talk about Tiger's game in extreme terms because every shot is shown and analyzed, which, given the hype and drama from shot-to-shot, can make it more difficult to measure the final product when it's all over.
His opening round, however, was a new low in this humiliating season. It was such a step back and there was no sign of that ball striking from his prior start. He was playing a wide open course that mitigated his biggest weakness: wildness off the tee. It's also a place he's owned, which should help matter, regardless of the state of his game in 2015. It did at Augusta.
Tiger said he felt like he was "playing well enough to win this event." His T32 at Greenrbier was presumably the shred of support to make that statement. After chopping it up for two rounds over three days, he was asked what he learned from another terrible major performance and responded with this:
You know, it's kind of funny because I didn't -- we were talking about that the other day; I hit the ball solid. It's just that it wasn't getting through the wind. I don't know what was causing that, and it's something that we're going to have to take a look at, look at my numbers, see if the spin rates are on or not, but it was so frustrating because all my shots that I hit solid and flush into the wind, they just weren't carrying at all.
Spin rates? It's a pretty strong piece of support for Azinger's pet phrase that Tiger has been "over-engineered" and the "artist has tried to become an engineer."
He is asked about his game and swing more than anyone and way too much, so he needs the crutch of those vacuous Tiger terms like "feels" and "baseline shift" and "release patterns." It's a running joke and they're empty words, but I can understand how they might be necessary. There's only so many answers to the same questions that will keep getting asked, so it might be best for him to go away for awhile.
After that at St. Andrews, to discuss spin rates and hitting the ball solid and just not getting it through the wind? And framing it as if there was some outside force and we just need some tweaks? It was bizarre, and possibly delusional.
5. St. Andrews might not be worthy of a major championship if it were not the "Home of Golf." It's a treasonous statement. I went into it in more detail over the weekend, but there were far bigger issues than some extreme wind in play during that interminable 10-hour delay. A discussion of how pro tournament golf is operated and the golf industry as a whole was on the table. Equipment, specifically, the golf ball, is supercharged. Because the best in the world hit it so far now, the greens are often sped up to try and keep scores from getting out of control at a prestigious major championship. Those speeds may not be suitable for links golf at St. Andrews, which has now had wind delays in three straight major events after going centuries without issue.
By the end of the weekend, the fiasco that led to the Monday finish had prompted multiple big questions. Would St. Andrews, which is just 7300 yards and often plays shorter, stick on a major championship rota if not for the reverence of its history and place in the game? And because that blasphemous question is even getting asked, should the events of this weekend be the needed push to roll back the modern supercharged golf ball? And should there be bifurcation -- let us hacks keep hitting the ball that flies while the guys with real talent play with different rules and equipment? These underlying issues bubbled up and became the prominent discussion during the delay. This five-day major at the Home of Golf was another strong piece of evidence for those arguing for change.
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