Arnold Palmer proposed it. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods pursued it.
Those are the three biggest names in golf over the last half-century, combining for 214 wins on the PGA Tour and 39 majors. They all came to Scotland — Palmer at St. Andrews, Nicklaus and Woods at Muirfield — with hopes of a Grand Slam, the holy grail in golf. They all failed.
The next opportunity falls to a 21-year-old Texan who is ahead of his time.
Jordan Spieth might not have seemed like the ideal candidate to be halfway to a sweep of the four professional majors.
All he had at the start of the season was one PGA Tour victory, a great short game and an uncanny sense of the moment. It was more than enough at Augusta National, where Spieth set one scoring record and tied two others in a runaway victory at the Masters. It was barely enough at Chambers Bay, where he outlasted Dustin Johnson for a one-shot victory in the U.S. Open.
The next stop on this amazing ride? The British Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews, a place dripping with the kind of history Spieth wants to make.
To appreciate what Spieth has done to this point, look at the company he is keeping. Only five other players since the Masters began in 1934 have won the first two majors of the year. Ben Hogan is the only player to win the first three. That was in 1953 when the final two majors overlapped. Hogan’s legs were so battered that he stopped playing the PGA Championship, a grueling week of match play, and instead won at Carnoustie in his only British Open appearance.
Spieth is aware of what he calls “noise” — the hype over his bid for a Grand Slam. And he is embracing it.
“To have an opportunity to get to a level where you would only include one name, and that’s Ben Hogan, that would be pretty cool,” Spieth said. “And then maybe zero names after that.”
One name he won’t have to worry about at St. Andrews is Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world.
Right when a new rivalry was starting to blossom — they have won the last four majors and are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world — McIlroy was playing soccer and ruptured a ligament in his left ankle. Eight days before the start of the Open, he was forced to withdraw.
Not since Hogan has a British Open not featured the defending champion.
“It’s hugely disappointing, especially with him and Jordan and everything that’s going on,” Graeme McDowell said. “No one would love to stop Jordan in his tracks more than Rory. With the fun rivalry going on and everything, he’s going to be gutted.”
Even before the injury, this British Open was shaping up as the Spieth Show. And it still is.
It’s not like St. Andrews needed a moment like this to be special. This is the 29th time that golf’s oldest championship is held on golf’s oldest links.
A shot at the Grand Slam doesn’t come around very often.
St. Andrews is where Bobby Jones won the first leg of his Grand Slam in 1930 when it consisted of the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. As the professional game took over, Palmer cooked up the idea of a modern slam when he came over to St. Andrews for the first time in 1960 as the Masters and U.S. Open champion. He lost by one shot to Kel Nagle.
Nicklaus had his one chance in 1972, but his 66 in the final round at Muirfield was one shot short of Lee Trevino. Forty years later, along came Woods at the peak of his powers. Woods barely broke a sweat in winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002. He was only two shots out of the lead at Muirfield going into the weekend. And then he ran into his fiercest opponent — mother nature. Rain and a raging wind off the Firth of Forth helped send him to an 81 and ended his dream.
Now it falls to Spieth.
“He has, much like Tiger did, a real legitimate shot to win the first three legs of the slam,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. “I think he can handle the pressure. I think he’s that kind of customer.”
Spieth doesn’t overpower golf courses like Woods once did, like McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson do now. But a good short game never goes out of style. And with each major victory, the confidence only grows.
“He’s just got a lot of momentum right now,” Zach Johnson said. “He’s got some qualities that you just can’t see. They’re hard to comprehend.”
Woods, meanwhile, has become an afterthought. He tied for 32nd in his final event before the Open, and this was seen as progress. He had the highest 36-hole score of his career when he missed the cut at the U.S. Open. He has gone nearly two years without winning.
Woods is among the few who can appreciate what Spieth is facing. Not only did he get halfway home to a Grand Slam in 2002, Woods swept all four majors over two seasons in 2000-01. The hardest part was waiting nearly eight months — a new year — for the final piece.
“When I won the three in a row in 2000, it seemed so much easier because it’s only a month wait and you maybe play one tournament, or maybe you don’t play a tournament, in between,” he said. “The wait from August to April was tough.
“Here, he’s just got a month,” Woods said. “It just rolls right into the next.”
McIlroy’s absence doesn’t clear the way for Spieth. Winning is hard at any tournament. If not for Dustin Johnson missing a half-dozen putts inside 10 feet on the final day at Chambers Bay — including a three-putt from 12 feet on the 18th hole — there is no talk about a Grand Slam.
But there is. And four days over the Old Course at St. Andrews will determine if the “noise” around Spieth turns into the roar of a freight train.