Spieth's virtuoso Open performance leaves him on cusp of history

SOUTHPORT, England — The very first time Jordan Spieth had the chance to sleep on a share of the lead at a major championship, it was Saturday night at the Masters in 2014, and he was 20 years old.

He lay awake, well after midnight, mulling the enormity of the moment. He and some friends and family had spent the evening watching sports, but when it was time to go to bed, he couldn’t quiet his mind. He tossed and turned, finally fell asleep, then woke up early and had six hours of nervous energy to manage before his final-round tee time. He ended finishing 3 strokes behind Bubba Watson.

That night feels, to Spieth, as if it could have occurred half a lifetime ago. He has hit thousands of shots since then, circled the globe several times, won big tournaments and lost them, absorbed waves of both praise and criticism and matured bit by bit along the way. He believes he is wiser and better off because of the totality of those experiences, and he can fall asleep much easier now, when he’s on the doorstep of history.

Saturday will mark the 14th time he has slept on the lead at a major. After he shot 65 in the third round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, it moved him ahead of fellow American Matt Kuchar by three strokes, and though there is still much work to be done, it would be a considerable surprise if he didn’t win his third major championship Sunday.

Through 54 holes, he has scarcely missed an iron by more than five yards. He has handled the weather, the bunkers and the pressure, far better than any of his peers. When he birdied the 18th hole after a mediocre iron shot Saturday, raising his putter into the air and walking toward the ball as he curled into the heart of the cup, it felt like seeing a man at the peak of his powers.

In all likelihood, we are watching what will be remembered as a quintessential performance in Spieth’s career oeuvre. Some courses can be overpowered by the biggest hitters on tour, and while Spieth still contends on those tracks, he has to trade some of his artistry to focus on power. Other courses, such as Birkdale, need to be dissected with steely calculation, and that’s when Spieth seems as if he’s at his best. It would be fitting if he picked up the third leg of the career Grand Slam at a place that puts so much emphasis on great iron play, because whether you realize it or not, in the past year, Spieth has become the best iron player on tour.

The facts don’t just support that argument, they confirm it. The notion that he’s a scrappy scrambler who relies on a magic putter might never fade for some of us, but the more the world of golf embraces analytics, the more we’re beginning to understand Spieth’s stats tell the real story. What his swing lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up for in consistency and proximity to the hole.

If you’re still someone with doubts that Spieth is a historically great player — maybe even the best of his generation — I have bad news for you. He’s going to make you eat crow for the next two decades. Rory McIlroy is always going to thrill us when he’s riding a hot streak, and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka are going to leave us in awe with the way they can bludgeon the ball, but I’m convinced when it’s time to sit down and sort out everyone’s place in history someday, Spieth is going to have the most wins, including majors.

If he finishes the job Sunday, he’ll enter next month’s PGA Championship with a chance to match McIlroy for total number of majors, and he’ll have a shot at becoming only the sixth golfer in history to win the career Grand Slam. In 2014, when McIlroy looked as if he was cementing his status as the sport’s Alpha Dog, the idea that one of his contemporaries might be in a position to catch him in just a few years’ time would have seemed laughable.

Spieth inspires his share of purple prose and the occasional bout of syrupy hyperbole — some of it has even appeared on these pages, penned by yours truly — but you should mostly forgive those of us who are guilty of literary overreach. He is a nice reminder that the best athletes are not always genetically blessed giants, their shirts straining to contain their bulging muscles. Spieth has worked hard in the gym over the past year to improve his iron play, changed his diet to increase his stamina and picked the brain of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to help understand the pressures of fame and celebrity. But Spieth has done nothing radical, just made small tweaks he hopes will serve as the foundation for a lengthy career.

There is still a chance this Spiethian Masterpiece will unravel Sunday. The unpredictable English weather could turn, bringing a number of crazy scenarios into play, or someone could have a career day and run him down with a surprise round in the low 60s.

But even if that happens, the result will have nothing to do with Spieth’s 12th-hole, final-round calamity at the Masters in 2016. He believes that as deeply as he believes anything. As much as that moment stung, it didn’t represent failure to Spieth as much as it did opportunity. You can roll your eyes if you like, but that’s how he has come to view it. Yes, he missed out on winning another major that year. Yes it was difficult to put a green jacket on Danny Willett. But what mattered, in the long run, was he put himself in the mix, even without his best golf.

He’s going to be the in the mix, again and again, for years to come. This week, we might just be watching his magnum opus.

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