SOUTHPORT, England — Spectators sneaked inside the ropes, scurrying along the 18th fairway at Royal Birkdale, shrieking as Jordan Spieth headed toward the final green to a loud ovation from the packed grandstands and the coronation everyone expected to take place.
But not like this.
How about a legendary comeback that will long be remembered as one of the game’s epic feats?
The old links by the Irish Sea has seen plenty of drama during 10 Open Championships played in this English town, with Hall of Famers Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Mark O’Meara all prevailing here.
But it would be hard to top what Spieth pulled off Sunday, overcoming an unplayable lie penalty to make the most unlikely of bogeys, then playing the final five holes in 5 under par, including a near ace and an eagle that saw him celebrate by barking at his caddie to “go get that!”
“I happily went and got it,” Michael Greller said.
The stretch of holes starting at the par-3 14th: 6-iron from 199 yards that nearly went in and yielded a kick-in birdie; eagle putt from 50 feet; birdie putt from 30 feet; birdie putt from 7 feet; and tap-in par for the victory.
Spieth is the Champion Golfer of the Year, the title bestowed upon the winner of The Open, and no potion he pours into the Claret Jug could ever be enough to summon whatever magic was necessary to pull it off.
“Great display of guts, determination and skill,” tweeted Jack Nicklaus. And who could argue?
If ever there was a need for pictures on a scorecard, this was the day. Numbers do not come close to telling this story, a 1-under 69 looking so mundane in the record books.
It was Spieth’s third major championship and gave him the third leg of the career Grand Slam just a few days shy of his 24th birthday, only the Golden Bear himself getting to that lofty position in the game at an earlier age.
But the journey was far from the expected stroll, a perilous trek that saw Spieth having to take a drop from an unplayable lie at the 13th hole, his nearest point between a couple of equipment vans which allowed him to take line-of-sight relief — on the driving range.
You couldn’t make it up. Spieth hit the blind shot from behind a sand dune, leaving a tricky pitch — which he got up and down for a bogey that saved the tournament.
“The putt on 13 was just massive,” said Spieth, who noted that Greller told him on the way to the 14th tee, “that’s a momentum shift right there.”
Smart man, Greller.
Spieth, in a revealing bit of honesty, admitted that thoughts of the 2016 Masters drifted about his jumbled brain as his round began to unravel, having made four first-nine bogeys to let a 3-shot advantage slip away.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself unfortunately, and not on purpose, before the round today, just thinking this is the best opportunity that I’ve had since the ’16 Masters,” Spieth said. “And if it weren’t to go my way today, then all I’m going to be questioned about and thought about and murmured about is in comparison to that, and that adds a lot of pressure to me.
“After four holes it was even more so. And I wasn’t questioning myself as a closer, but I was questioning why I couldn’t just perform the shots that I was before.”
There was no Rae’s Creek — where he dunked two in the water at Augusta National to help blow a 5-stroke advantage with 9 holes to play at the 2016 Masters — to confront at Birkdale, no water hazards of any kind. But the trouble was just as pronounced.
By now, the sunny skies that greeted players earlier in the day were replaced by clouds. Rain fell intermittently, flags flapping above the grandstands. The air turned colder, all eyes on the par-3 14th hole that plays back toward the 18th fairway.
And that’s when Spieth ripped the 6-iron shot that narrowly slipped past the hole, the birdie putt tying it with four holes to play. At the par-5 15th, it was a 50-footer for eagle, with Kuchar getting up and down for a birdie to stay within 1 stroke.
Three holes remained, fans scurrying about to get a better vantage point, marshals doing their best to keep them at bay, dozens of photographers angling for the best angle — all inside the ropes. The pot bunkers, the gorse, the difficult rough, the pressure … and then dozens if not hundreds of people cluttering the scene.
“Man, it’s exciting out there,” Kuchar said. “A chance to win a British Open, the crowds were just fantastic. I don’t know what the numbers were, but they were deep. It was really fun to be in the arena having a chance to put your name on the Claret Jug.”
And almost any other day, Kuchar would have done just that. He shot 69 and after taking a 1-shot lead with five holes to play, navigated the next four in 2 under par. That usually wins.
But Spieth’s birdie at the 16th gave him a 2-shot lead, and he matched Kuchar’s birdie at the 17th. Kuchar needed to play aggressive at the 18th, and came up short in a bunker, leading to a final bogey.
“It’s crushing; it hurts,” said Kuchar, 39, a seven-time PGA Tour winner whose wife, Sibby and two children surprised him by flying from a vacation in Colorado to England — he didn’t know they were on site until the round was finished.
And yet, what could Kuchar do but stand by and watch Spieth do all those crazy things.
“Once you think he’s out, or on a downward spiral, it’s almost like a shocker goes off,” said 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson, who along with Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, was waiting behind the 18th green as Spieth did a victory lap and posed for photos with the Claret Jug.
“He almost went eagle-eagle. Let’s be honest, he almost made a hole-in-one. Then he makes a bomb; makes a bomb; makes a clutch putt. And then obviously did what he needed to do on 18.
“To do it on this stage … I’m impressed. I’m sincerely, sincerely impressed.”
Two years ago at Home of Golf, it was Johnson who prevailed in a playoff at St. Andrews, with Spieth having finished a shot back. At the time, Spieth was going for a third straight major championship, but bogeyed the 17th hole to fall out of a tie for the lead, then was unable to make a tying bogey at the final hole.
As crushing as that defeat was, Spieth traveled back to the United States on the same private plane with Johnson, sharing in the celebration and even drinking from the Claret Jug.
“I was told that was bad luck,” Spieth said at the trophy presentation ceremony. “And I was starting to believe that a bit today. It feels good to hold this Claret Jug.”
Spieth also used the opportunity to give credit to Greller, saying the trophy “is as much yours as it is mine.”
The young Texan’s name etched on the famous jug forever, the winning score of 268 will never come close to telling this tale.