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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sally Jenkins: Spieth at St. Andrews – young man vs. old course

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s a striking thing to watch, this rendezvous between the young man and the Old Course. Royal St. Andrews is so gray and open-skied it seems to have no horizon, with a constant overhang of clouds and a silver sea that blend together, so that when Jordan Spieth swings the club his golf ball disappears into a blankness that seems like his unlimited future. The British Open has not yet begun, and everything, including a Grand Slam, still seems possible here.

Spieth is vibrantly juvenile-seeming against the background of this ghosty old town, with its tumbled castle and gaping church ruins and the circling seagulls that sound like wraith cries. The chesty kid tramps through the rain-wet and worn old shepherd pastures with a sense of adventure, trying trouble shots for fun. He is 21, and life is easy. Golf is easy. Jet lag is easy. Still, it’s hard not to sense the weight of all that history.

“That’s the hardest thing for me, is trying to forget where you are,” Spieth said Wednesday.

There you have it: It’s not just a matter of what Spieth is trying to do; it’s the where of it. He’s come to the ancient golf course that was the original template for all others with a chance to win the British Open and a third leg of the Grand Slam. Forget for a moment that winning four majors in a single year is so difficult that only one man has ever done it, Bobby Jones in 1930, and just six have won the first two legs. Spieth faces all kinds of other complications: the flash grenade of sudden superstardom after winning the Masters and the U.S. Open in succession, combined with his extreme youth and lack of experience. Until this week he had played St. Andrews only once before, when he was a teenager, and he is still adjusting to the time change since his late arrival Monday night after winning the John Deere Classic in Illinois.

Until Spieth got here, most of his impressions of St. Andrews were formed on a course simulator at home in Dallas.

“The course was a lot easier with 68 degrees and no breeze coming out of the air conditioner in that room,” he said wryly.

St. Andrews was carved out of a rocky shore by time and primeval weather; the town dates to 1140 and the course is half a millennium old. It’s hardly a place for ingenues. It looks flat, but the deep contoured fairways channel the ball into awkward places and it takes a lot of playing to get to know its changeable character in the weather – where to hit it when the rain starts spitting in your face instead of on the back of your neck and the wind holds up your ball like it was caught in the air by God’s own hand.

So any analysis of Spieth’s chances has to start with the acknowledgement that in this setting, he’s probably a long shot. Still, the steep arc of his career suggests that nothing is beyond him. In 2013 he came to the British Open at Muirfield as a teenager, the youngest winner on the PGA Tour in 82 years and fresh off a playoff victory in the John Deere. He literally didn’t have time to change before boarding a plane to Scotland and arrived unwashed. Yet he managed an opening-round 69 and was still hanging in contention until he shot a 76 on Saturday.

“I remember almost thinking it was too big at the time for me in a way,” he said. ” I felt like I wanted to compete. I loved the pressure and I felt like I could do it, but it was a position I’d never been in and it was an odd feeling being in contention of a major on a weekend. It was brief. I didn’t finish well that round. But it was enough to where now, in the position I’m sitting here today, I certainly feel like that’s where I want to be. That’s where I expect myself to be, versus feeling odd in that position.”

Spieth’s comfort has been readily apparent all season. He showed a preternatural clearheadedness and emotional maturity in winning the Masters and surviving a strange and frustrating course at Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open title. In his past 12 events, he has four victories, three second places and a tie for third. He has been a pleasant combination of studied on the golf course yet unstudied off it, comfortable in the public eye and extremely secure in himself. Which should help him cope this week.

“Why should I change?” he asked.

If he is able to contend here, it will be due to an on-course mental strength that comes from a high level of organization extraordinary in a 21-year-old, and an “aim small, miss small” philosophy that was taught to him by his longtime coach Cameron McCormick. “The more pressure you feel in the heat of the moment, the smaller of a target you can pick,” Spieth says. Instead of thinking about how many strokes he leads by and how badly he needs a par, he focuses on using a tree branch as a marker for his tee shot. It’s nothing new; he just happens to be especially good at it.

“When I get in those positions, that’s what comes to my mind is how I can zero in even more and more and more,” he said.

If Spieth is apprehensive about his inexperience at St. Andrews, you wouldn’t know it. He is following his own instincts about how to play the place. On Monday evening he ran into Tiger Woods practicing on the 16th hole and chatted with him for about 10 minutes about the course. But he decided that too much advice could confuse him and instead chose to rely on his own impressions, as well as some old-fashioned homework. McCormick has obtained the pin placements from both the 2000 and 2010 British Opens held here and Spieth is studying them.

“We’ve kind of plotted our way already,” he said, before adding, “I think we could overanalyze this course. I think simple is better.”

But it’s a mistake to underrate the sophistication of Spieth’s eye. At least one expert believes that Spieth will contend at St. Andrews based on his sharp golfing intelligence. Nick Faldo, the former world No. 1 player and three-time British champion turned TV analyst, says other players are beginning to realize that Spieth is not just a great ball-striker and smooth putter; he has an almost cartographic mind that grasps the angles and slopes of a course instantly.

“We are acknowledging Jordan has this great ability,” Faldo says. “Many people play practice rounds with him – one round, and the next day he’ll be talking about the golf course and they’ll have missed everything he’s talking about, all the little subtle slopes. So he’s obviously got a very high golf IQ, and he takes a lot on board.”

That should make it a match made in heaven: the youngest man in 93 years to win two majors against the oldest championship layout in the game, meeting for the first time with a trophy at stake.Sa

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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