Jordan Spieth waited 467 days for this. The truth is, so had the rest of us.
There have been few more painful episodes in sport – including for viewers who retain even an ounce of compassion – than Spieth’s late capitulation at the 2016 Masters. For all the analysis and introspection that followed, one thing has been missing: Spieth placing himself firmly in position to win another major championship. How would he handle it? Would glory matter more than previously? Did that Georgian affair irrevocably damage Spieth’s ability to close out on the big stage?
The broader picture, of a curious run involving seven successive first-time major champions, is that golf would surely have benefited from this brilliant young Texan endorsing earlier flirtation with greatness by dominating his sport.
Shortly after 1pm on this, the opening round of the 146th Open Championship, Spieth sat atop the leaderboard once more. There are 54 holes to play yet it is hardly unnatural to fast forward to Sunday, to the death throes of this event, and the tantalising prospect of Spieth exorcising some Augusta demons. Or, dare one suggest it, otherwise. The 23-year-old has an itch to scratch in this major, too, having fallen just a shot outside a play-off position in the Open of 2015.
Spieth’s standards are high. His analysis of this Open start of 65 was therefore telling. “Everything was strong,” he said. “I give it a nine out of 10 across the board for everything: tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting. So things are in check. It’s just about keeping it consistent.
“This round could be a lot more significant in three days’ time than I would consider it right now. I’d call it a top five, probably, major round that I’ve played. There are scores that I’ve shot that were closer to par that were better given what I needed to do. But I couldn’t have done much better today.”
By the conclusion of day one, Spieth had been joined at five under par by his compatriots Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar. It would be unwise to discount Koepka in particular from this Open equation, given his terrific performance last month when claiming the US equivalent. It is hardly an insult to Koepka to suggest his obvious refusal to overanalyse – or even analyse – on the golf course carries huge benefit.
There were indications that Spieth may have been building towards Birkdale. In his last professional act before the Open, he holed out from a bunker to win the Travelers Championship. Spieth’s confidence was further endorsed by his decision to take a holiday thereafter. He landed on Merseyside not only refreshed but buoyed by the tangible reward his performances earlier in 2017 threatened rather than promised.
Spieth was wise enough to point out he probably had to make hay while the sun, literally, shone. Excellent conditions on Thursday, aside from an early morning spell during which a squall conjured memories of 2008 here, are likely to be offset by wind and rain throughout day two. “I thought today’s round was extremely important,” Spieth said. “Given the forecast coming in, I thought you really needed to be in the red today.”
Two moments of Spieth magic on Thursday stood out. A chip to within tap-in distance of the 10th hole from dense rough was sublime. Even better followed on the 16th, where the two-times major champion produced an outstanding effort from a downhill lie in a greenside bunker to again permit a par save.
Paul Casey’s 66 leaves him in a perfect position for a serious run at the major win that has thus far eluded him. Casey will celebrate his 40th birthday on the Open’s second day. The Englishman has that batch of first-time winners as a reference point should, and it seems unlikely, he require further incentive.
“The Open has never been the major I’ve fared the best at,” Casey said. “I seem to have struggled, apart from St Andrews in 2010. My results haven’t been good but I feel really good about this week.
“I don’t know why, maybe I’m more in love with links golf than I was before. Certainly this course helps, I really like this course. I’m not putting that much pressure on myself but very much wanting to win it.”
Ian Poulter, who could complete a golfing fairytale by progressing from final qualifying to the podium, signed for a 67. Justin Thomas sported a collar and tie for Thursday, the kind of move that would lead to ridicule if not backed up by a proper showing. Thomas duly matched Poulter’s score as did Richard Bland, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Charley Hoffman and Austin Connelly.
Rory McIlroy was in a tailspin when in the position of five over par after only six holes. The Northern Irishman saved par from distance on the 8th in a moment that seemed to trigger an upturn in confidence. A 71 to start, in context, represented quite an achievement with McIlroy’s body language alone notably positive during post-round media duties. It would be folly to discount him from the tournament at this juncture. If McIlroy did not have the heart or the ability to contend, there was ample opportunity to throw in the towel.
The problem for McIlroy, and others, is Spieth’s prominence. The sense of familiarity was, for once, a welcome one.