ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Apparently it was students-get-in-free day at the British Open. Young Jordan Spieth was charging in pursuit of the third leg of the Grand Slam, and along the 18th fairway at of St. Andrews, mixing with the sound of a faint bagpipe, some American college types were singing the “The Eyes of Texas” fight song for him. But then here came another college boy, amateur Paul Dunne, to challenge him in the history-making department and seize a share of the lead. If you want to make a run at golf annals, it pays to be a 21-year-old who thinks the third round of a major championship is more fun than putting into a clown’s mouth.
A dead calm fell over the Old Course on Sunday, and it turned the tournament into a youth charity outing. Dunne, a 22-year-old Irish qualifier with a butterknife-smooth swing who played golf at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, shot a 66 for a piece of a three-way tie at 12 under par with Jason Day and former British champion Louis Oosthuizen. He became the first amateur to sleep on, or try to, the 54-hole lead in the Open since Bobby Jones in 1927. “It was such a fun day,” he said. Just a stroke behind him was Spieth, 21, trying to become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the first three majors of the year, and the first since Jones in 1930 to accomplish a calendar-year sweep of four majors.
“At this point it’s free rolling,” Spieth said after his third-round 66.
After three days of “wicked weather where you just want to go home,” as Spieth put it, a pleasant 60-degree tranquility settled over St. Andrews. It had taken 39 hours to complete the second round in a classic Scottish gale, forcing a Monday finish for only the second time in tournament history. But in the milder weather of Sunday’s third round the Old Course was “gettable,” Spieth said. And just about everybody got at it.
Even David Duval, the 43-year-old former champ who has fallen to No.1,268th in the world, shot a 67. Jordan Niebrugge, yet another 21-year-old collegian from Oklahoma State, shot his second 67 of the tournament to sit just four strokes back in a logjam at 9 under. In fact, only one player in the top 25 shot over par in the third round, Dustin Johnson, the halfway-point leader who fell away by bogeying his last three holes for a 75.
Dunne, carried along by a home crowd and steadied by UAB Coach Alan Murray who caddied for him, birdied five of his first 10 holes. With plans to turn pro and join the European this summer, he seemed to think a victory as an amateur in the Open was within the realm of possibility. “I don’t see why not,” he said. He appeared completely unsurprised by his rounds of 69-69-66. “Yeah it’s surreal that I’m leading the Open but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot,” he said. “If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn’t be too surprised by the scores I shot. It’s just lucky that it happens to be in the biggest event in the world.”
But perhaps the player least surprised by his position was Spieth. Has there ever been a young player as well put together? Not just physically, though he certainly has a sense of squared balance and proportion, along with a sense of neat, tucked-in organization. It’s the sense of mental put-togetherness that makes him so impressive. He is completely secure in himself and sure of what he is doing, and the stakes don’t bother him.
“I’m going to play to win – I’m not playing for a place,” he said. “I don’t want to place third tomorrow. I want to win.”
Rarely has any player, much less such a young one, shown such ability to change a round with sheer force of his competitive will. Spieth got himself in contention after a bogey at the ninth hole infuriated him. Frustrated by poor putting and an inability to gather any momentum, he walked over to his caddie, Michael Greller, feeling like he wanted to hit something, “I couldn’t hold it in,” he said. He looked for a convenient target, and settled on his golf bag. He punched it. “I didn’t want to hit Michael, so I figured I’d hit my golf bag,” he said.
Then he birdied the next three holes. They were a succession of straight drives, pure short irons, and putts of 12, eight, and 15 feet that found the center of the holes. He went on to a 32 for the second nine. “To bounce back on the back nine was huge today,” he said. “I needed to see some putts go. It was huge for my confidence to carry that momentum into the rest of the round, and it’s big for me going into tomorrow.” (Speith is paired with Jason Day for Monday’s final round and is scheduled to tee off at 8:20 a.m. Central time).
Tomorrow – what about that? It is certainly a long shot: No one has ever won the modern version of golf’s Grand Slam, the Masters, U.S. Open, British, and PGA Championship. As for Jones, he was fully 28 when he won the 1930 version, the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. There are a bunch of good players standing between Spieth and the Claret Jug, starting with Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 Open here. Two strokes back is Padraig Harrington at 10 under, and three back are Justin Rose, Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson, all winners of majors.
But there are some signs that Spieth is just the man to deal with the combination of pressure from a crowded field, and the sense of historical magnitude in the final round. “It hasn’t come up in my head while I’ve been playing yet,” Spieth said. “. . . If I have a chance coming down the stretch, if it creeps in, I’ll embrace it.”
He was imperturbable under pressure in winning the Masters and U.S. Open. But more than that, he has shown a distinct sense of enjoyment of the big occasion. He seems to feel that the chance to make history is not pressure, but a pleasure, judging by his creased smile.
“To be able to try and go into the last major and accomplish something that’s never been done in our sport is something that only comes around to couple of people ever, and I’d like to be one of those people,” he said.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at email@example.com