Shots of the year (and how to hit them!): Jordan Spieth’s Royal (Birkdale) flush

November 22, 2017

Initially, we balked at the thought of ranking the best shots from the 2016-2017 season. Was it even possible? PGA Tour pros alone took more than 1.1 million strokes last year, and 35 different players notched victories. Surely, at least one award-worthy shot played a role in each of those wins. But we liked the idea, so to make the impossible possible, we systematically cut the candidate list to swings with highlight-reel appeal that also happened to unfold under the most pressure. Ultimately, our goal was to use the year’s top plays to help you improve your play. Our guess is that the pressure a Tour pro feels in a career-defining moment is the anxiety that looms over recreational players on almost every swing (at least it does for us). You learn a lot by studying the best, and glean even more by copying their finest moments. Here they are. The envelope, please…

Best bounce back: Jordan Spieth at Royal Birkdale

Jordan Spieth’s birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie finish to overtake Matt Kuchar at the British Open is already the stuff of legend. Just ask Kuchar’s caddie, John Wood, who still can’t believe what went down.

Kooch and Jordan came to the 13th tee tied. It was a two-man tournament at that point. Matt had the honor, and he hit a drive that ended up in a pretty good spot, right of the last fairway bunker in some light fescue. I wasn’t overly concerned with where Jordan’s tee shot would go, because you can’t play defense in golf. But I did watch—and I couldn’t find the ball, which never happens. I heard Jordan’s reaction, but I had no idea where his drive was headed. [Ed.: Spieth’s tee shot sailed wildy right, behind a huge dune and into a thicket of hay. After deciding to take an unplayable lie, Spieth methodically assessed his options before taking a drop nearly 100 yards farther back, on an adjacent driving range. In all, it took him 20 minutes to play his remarkable blind third shot.] Obviously, it was an unfortunate situation, and everyone, including Jordan, wishes it hadn’t taken so long. But Matt has one of the best attitudes on Tour. As he and I watched everything unfold, we felt, at best, that we were going to the 14th tee with a two-shot lead, but considering Jordan’s skill, more likely a one-shot lead. Sure enough, after our par, Jordan poured in his bogey and trailed for the first time all day. But it was amazing how much it felt like he had the momentum as we walked off the 13th green.

Still, we were right where we wanted to be: with the lead on the back nine of the British Open with five holes to play. Playing smart was definitely the goal: Make him beat us. Matt again had the honors on 14, and hit a good 6-iron to the middle of the green. Jordan also chose 6-iron and smoked it. The ball never left the pin. I thought it might be long when it came off the clubface, but it landed right next to the hole and finished close. How he was able to pull off that swing after what had just happened on the previous hole, I’ll never know. Matt made a routine two-putt par and, sure enough, Jordan canned his birdie putt. We were tied all over again.

If I had to do it over again, the only thing I’d have done differently was slow things down on the 14th tee. It sounds crazy having just played the 13th hole in a half hour, but for the first time all day we had the lead, and if we could have taken more time on 14—wiping down grips, triple-assessing the wind—it may have given Jordan an extra moment or two to think about what had just happened, that for the first time on Sunday he no longer held the lead.

Looking back, going 2-under over the final five holes with the lead probably gets it done in a major. But not with the fast break Jordan put on, birdieing 14, making eagle on 15, and then carding birdies on 16 and 17. We wanted to make him beat us, and he did. What can you do? Matt kept his head high—he played great. Jordan’s ability to do things other golfers simply can’t put Kooch on the wrong side of history. Hats off to Jordan. It was great to see Matt compete and be right there during a stretch of holes I’ll never forget.

The Other Greatest Shots: