Tour Confidential: What did we learn about Jordan Spieth from his gritty, thrilling performance?

July 23, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

Jordan Spieth won the British Open with a thrilling, topsy-turvy, final-round 69 that was anything but easy. What did you learn about Spieth and his game Sunday that you didn’t already know?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He’s off the charts for heart and brains. He’s not in the class of McIlroy and Dustin Johnson for golf skill. But he’s off the charts for heart and brains.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): His resiliency, which was written about in spades during his historic 2015, remains one of his defining traits. No one else could’ve bounced back from that weird and wild scene on 13 to play the last five holes in five under. He may not dominate like Tiger, but Spieth has the most unbreakable spirit in golf today, just as Tiger did in his prime.

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@Sean_Zak): I learned he no longer gets ahead of himself. I think at the 2016 Masters, with a huge lead entering the back nine, he got a bit ahead of himself, and it led him into some rash decision-making. Sunday, having driven the ball nearly off Birkdale’s planet, Spieth took it one slow minute at a time; one slow decision at a time. He made his bogey, didn’t race to the 14th tee, calmly striped a near-ace and quickly got his mojo back. As Michael Bamberger wrote in the game story, so many people—amateur or pro—become unhinged in those moments.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): The kid is all heart. There was cause to doubt that after the last two holes of the 2015 Open and Augusta last year. But the grit he showed on Sunday at Birkdale has already passed into legend.

Joe Passov, travel writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): All day long, I paid heed to Bones Mackay’s comment the day before that he feels Spieth has an incredible golf IQ. Not only did he acquit himself admirably in the 13th hole situation, but he hit so many great shots and holed so many clutch putts at a time where both the drive at 13 and the 2016 Masters could have easily haunted him into escalating the nightmare. He’s truly a special player, being able to regroup so quickly and so brilliantly.

The moment that will define Spieth’s win was his bogey on the 13th hole, where after driving his ball into a dune, he took an unplayable-lie drop in the driving range. All told, it took him nearly a half an hour to play the hole. He apologized to Kuchar on the green and thanked him at the winner’s ceremony but are you OK with how Spieth handled the situation?

Bamberger: Perfect? Intelligent? Appropriate for the circumstances? There is no wrong answer here.

Ritter: It took a long time, but not sure what else he could do. For most of us, the earth would start spinning during that kind of confusion. Carefully thinking and executing through the situation no doubt contributed to his steadiness over the closing holes.

Zak: Think about that scenario for a second. Final group, final day, final few decisions for the rules official. Sure, there was some waddling indecisiveness, but it was done among multiple people and thousands of spectators. Could it have been five minutes quicker? Maybe in a vacuum.

Shipnuck: It’s noteworthy that they had already been warned for slow play before that hole. Spieth showed an amazing composure and thoughtfulness in managing a chaotic situation and that’s what ultimately won him the Open. Yet, it wasn’t really fair to Kuchar, who had just hit his best shot of the back nine and then got iced for half an hour before such a crucial putt.

Passov: As awkward and drawn out as the mess at 13 was, Spieth handled it beautifully, and with the maturity of someone with twice his experience. What was it, 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Yet, he followed protocol, with rules officials alongside every step of the way. Had there not been the obstructions there were, typical for modern tournament golf, and with the practice range in play–perhaps controversially so–we wouldn’t be talking about this. He knew the rules, and he examined his options thoughtfully. Can’t ask for more than that.

Kuchar afforded himself respectably in the head-to-head showdown, but ultimately 22 players posted a better score Sunday than his one-under 69. Did Kooch’s play elevate or lower his position on the list of best players without a major title?

Bamberger: Playing in the last group is not the same. He handled his game and himself beautifully. As a golfer and I think person, he does not try to be something he’s not. He’s very good. His game at one point was GONE. He nearly won a gold medal and he nearly won an Open. He should be proud of where he is.

Ritter: Kooch has nothing to feel bad about. He played great, and in golf you can’t play defense. This bizarre Open Sunday felt in a lot of ways like Spieth’s destiny. I think Kuchar will get a major of his own before it’s all over.

Zak: I think he certainly elevated himself, if ever so slightly. That group of best players without a major title is always led by those who came painstakingly close at least once and often multiple times. This was Kuchar’s first one-hand-on-the-trophy miss, and he did it by shooting one under on the back nine. He played great golf and finished well. Spieth just played better.

Shipnuck: I would say Kucher was solid, not great. He had Jordan on the ropes, but was playing too cautiously to land the knockout punch. Then on the closing holes, he never put any pressure on Spieth.

Passov: I’m with Mr. Shipnuck here. It was symptomatic of his day, of the fight he offered, that he missed the fairway with his drive at 17–but then went on to birdie. He did many of the right things to have won, just not enough of them, or at the right time. He definitely moved up on my list of best players not to win a major so far, though he was pretty close to the top anyway.

A day after Branden Grace set a major-championship scoring record with an 8-under 62 in the third round, China’s Haotong Li became the sixth player in history to shoot a 63 in the final round of a major–an effort that landed him a solo third-place finish. Whose round was more impressive?

Bamberger: Li’s round was more impressive but Grace’s round was far more significant. He did it. Thirty major cards with 63 on it. Now 31. But only one with a 62. Not knowing surely helped. But we knew, and it was great, even if the course was not Oakmont ’73. It was Royal Birkdale, it was the Open, and he made the shots and holed the putts and played a perfect, or near-perfect, round of golf. Bravo.

Ritter: Grace indeed had a brilliant round, but after decades of mystique around this record, its fall felt anticlimactic. Round 3 at a breezeless Open, where the record-breaker begins the day double digits off the lead and on 18 doesn’t know what he’s putting for? He’s history, but it wasn’t exactly Roger Bannister cracking the 4-minute mile.

Zak: Ah, my favorite debate! Let the statistics show that…basically nothing separates the two other than “history” and 24 hours. The course average Sunday was 70.13, making Li’s round 7.1 strokes better than average. Grace’s round came on an easier setup one day prior, but it was essentially the same when compared to the field (7.02 strokes). 62 was special, but we’re just splitting hairs here.

Shipnuck: Grace all the way. Li never really had a chance to win, and he knew it. Grace accomplished something no man had ever accomplished before him and he’s now in the history books, unlike Li.

Passov: I’m in complete accord with Mr. Ritter on this one. I was out west in Arizona, and woke up pretty early Saturday morning, only to find out the record had been set. Wow. After all of that build-up, and Michael Bamberger’s excellent SI piece earlier this year, that’s it? There’s our 62, from a guy who barely made the cut? Then, when the other low scores followed, on a course rendered defenseless by the (lack of) weather, it felt like we had a John Deere Classic on our hands. Yes, the 62 was phenomenal, but it almost felt like you had played poorly if you posted 68 or higher. Mr. Li’s Sunday 63 was distinctive because it came from nowhere, but won’t much be remembered after tonight.

Was Royal Birkdale sufficiently set up to the challenge the players as a major-championship venue, or should golf go to greater lengths to protect its scoring records?

Bamberger: The R&A and the host clubs have it exactly correct. The course is the course. Do with it as you like and let nature do her thing. Then let the players play. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Ritter: Birkdale, like most Open venues, uses weather as one of its main defenses. On Saturday it was defenseless, but those are the breaks. I enjoy a rough and tumble U.S. Open where every par is an accomplishment, but at the British let’s keep playing these classic links courses as they were intended and let the chips fall.

Zak: I can’t say anything that Bamberger and Ritter haven’t already said. Birkdale was a significant test in tough weather; it was gettable with absolutely perfect weather; and it was very fair (to the level of play) during intermediate weather. What more can you ask for?

Shipnuck: I spent all of Saturday in a Twitter jihad on this subject and I’m going to write a column about it for so I’m going to shield my full answer for now. But in a word: no, it wasn’t.

Passov: The R&A, as with the USGA, has to guard against over-the-top setups, because they were burned in 2015 at St. Andrews, when the golf ball wouldn’t stay put on the greens, and especially at Carnoustie in 1999, when the setup was a joke in terms of fairway width and depth of rough. Unfortunately, when the greens are too soft, and there’s little wind, as was the case at Birkdale–certainly on Saturday–even a championship links course will yield low scores to today’s players. There simply aren’t enough teeth to bite these guys in today’s game, given calm, soft conditions. I loved the reasonable green speeds from Troon in 2016, when two guys–but only two–happened to get super-hot, just like Turnberry in 1977, but frankly, I was bored watching Saturday’s play at Birkdale. Simply not enough challenge to test these guys properly under major championship pressure.

We’ll close with a number: How many majors will Spieth win in his career?

Ritter: The Open sets up perfectly for his iron-putter-grit combo, so I will bullishly give him three more of those. I think he’ll vanquish his demons in Amen Corner at another Masters, and also bag a second U.S. Open. Somewhere along the way, he’ll finish the Grand Slam. That’s nine and a heck of a career.

Bamberger: It’s fun to try but who can measure health and desire and the rub of the green? I think he’ll win a PGA Championship between now and 2047 and be one of the few with a career grand slam.

Zak: It’s easy to see Spieth atop the game for the next 20 years. That’s how elite he is at getting his ball in the damn hole. I think he grabs two majors every five years—on average—and one after he’s turned 45, so with three already in the bag, I’m ready to crown him a 12-major man when it’s all said and done. And then there’s the Champions Tour 😉

Shipnuck: Somewhere between Palmer and Bobby Jones, which is rather epic.

Passov: I’m amazed that with as many poor drives as Spieth hits, and how many short putts he now misses, that he’s even in this conversation. Yet, he is–and I love it! As a history guy, I think of folks like Walter Hagen and Seve Ballesteros (and yes, Phil Mickelson), because you just didn’t know what was going to happen next to them, what sort of jam they’d be in, only to extricate themselves with a crazy chip-in or by holing a bomb. Better yet, they emote. That touch of genius is such great, fun stuff from a fan’s standpoint. I’ll root for that all day long. Nine majors for Jordan Spieth.