2017-07-22 21:34:02
Branden Grace Secures a Record, but Jordan Spieth Owns the Day

21:34, July 22 157 0

SOUTHPORT, England — Saturday morning at the British Open belonged to Branden Grace, a South African who became the first man to shoot a 62 in a major championship. Grace’s eight-under-par score at Royal Birkdale was a sublime individual performance, but no more breathtaking than the work of the final twosome, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar, who shot a combined nine under.

Spieth, who has held at least a share of the lead since the first round, carded a 65 for a 54-hole total of 11-under 199. He had a three-stroke lead over Kuchar, who posted a 66 to earn his first spot in a final pairing on the Sunday of a major.

The next-closest challengers, Austin Connelly and Brooks Koepka, are three strokes behind Kuchar. Connelly, a 20-year-old from Texas, carded a 66, and Koepka, the reigning United States Open champion, posted a 68. They were one stroke ahead of Grace and Hideki Matsuyama (66).

“It was a day where you had to be aggressive,” said Spieth, who put together a bogey-free round with a little help from his putter.

A day that dawned warm and sunny over Royal Birkdale turned cooler and wet near the end. Under a pewter sky, Kuchar and Spieth reached the 18th green with their approaches, then began walking toward grandstands filled mostly with British fans — who greeted the two Americans as if they were their own.

As he has since his first practice round here, Spieth, 23, walked like a man in a trance, so engrossed in the task at hand that nothing but the voice of his caddie, Michael Greller, pierced his reverie. But when Spieth reached for a yardage book in his back pocket to download some data into the computer that is his mind, Kuchar managed to get his attention.

Kuchar, 39, a companionable rival, commented on the cinematic splendor of the stage they occupied as the last group on the third day of a British Open at a course viewed by many as the finest that golf-proud England has to offer.

“This is pretty cool,” Kuchar said he had told Spieth. “We should soak it in for a second.”

Spieth said he had come to the same realization a second before Kuchar spoke up. “I started to take out my book, and saw the 18th hole, and I’m like, I can’t; this is not worthy of this,” he said. “Everyone is giving us an ovation, and it’s a time to appreciate that, enjoy the walk, but also to say, ‘Thank you’ for the support that these crowds give.”

This is the 14th time since Spieth turned pro in 2012 that he has held a 54-hole lead. He has won eight of the last nine of those times. The notable exception was the 2016 Masters, where Spieth, striving for a wire-to-wire win, took a five-stroke lead into the back nine and lost by three strokes to the Englishman Danny Willett.

Spieth said he would embrace the lessons he took from that collapse. “I understand that leads can be squandered quickly,” he said, adding, “It was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward.”

Spieth, who has won more PGA Tour events before age 24 than anyone but Tiger Woods, attributed the blinkered focus he has had all week to his recent victory at the Travelers Championship. It was his only competition between the United States Open, where he tied for 35th, and the trip to Royal Birkdale. He won the Travelers in a sudden-death playoff even though his performance on the greens, normally his favorite canvas, had not been up to his exacting standards.

“I was able to win feeling really poorly with the putter, and that’s never happened before, going back to junior golf,” Spieth said. “And being able to do that gave me confidence.”

Spieth has few complaints with his putter here; he has made every attempt that mattered and a few — like a tricky putt for par at the 15th after he badly misread his birdie effort — that seemed to surprise even him.

On the 18th, Spieth was sure his approach was headed for a pot bunker, but he got a break when his ball skipped on a mound and rolled to the edge of the green. Kuchar, meanwhile, stuck his approach to within 8 feet. Putting first, Spieth drained his 15-foot attempt for what he described as “a scrappy birdie.”

“That’s expected with Jordan,” said Kuchar, who missed his birdie attempt. “I had a very good feeling about my putt, thought I’d knock it in.”

Did Kuchar wonder then, or at any point during the round, what he would have to do to top Spieth?

“I never felt like I was out there trying to beat Jordan,” he said. “It’s trying to go up against Royal Birkdale and put on the best show you can against the golf course.”