Dallas resident Jordan Spieth heads into Thursday’s opening round at the British Open as the clear-cut favorite of oddsmakers to extend his 2015 Grand Slam hopes beyond this week in Scotland.
Spieth, the No. 2 player in the world golf rankings, won Sunday’s title at the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour and will face a field at St. Andrews that does not include Rory McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked golfer. McIlroy, last year’s British Open champion, will not compete because of a recent ankle injury suffered while playing soccer with friends.
That means Spieth, the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champ, will be the top-ranked golfer in the field at a major championship for the first time in his career. Spieth, 21, has a chance to join Fort Worth golf legend Ben Hogan as the only professional golfers to win the first three legs of the modern Grand Slam (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) in the same season. Hogan did so in 1953 when he claimed the first three titles but did not compete at the PGA.
No player has won all four of today’s majors in the same season, although Bobby Jones is credited with winning the 1930 Grand Slam because he won the four biggest events of that era in that calendar year (U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur, British Amateur). Tiger Woods held concurrent titles in all four legs of the modern Grand Slam following his victory at the 2001 Masters, but his other three major titles were captured in 2000.
Spieth’s quest to play his way into the golf history books is the overriding storyline heading into Thursday’s opening round and has triggered lots of discussion from past major champions who will be part of ESPN’s coverage team at the Old Course. Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion, acknowledged that Spieth does not project as the prototype golfer to win at St. Andrews because he ranks only 76th among PGA Tour players in driving distance (291-yard avg.) at a course where past winners have overpowered the layout by flying the ball over strategic fairway bunkers with regularity. Examples include John Daly (1995) and Woods (2000, 2005).
“If you look at the golf course and how it fits Jordan’s game, I think there’s two types of players that really do have advantages there: the player who can hit it 800 miles … and put it in places that you can’t get in trouble,” North said, citing Daly and Woods as prime examples. “Or the player who has to be very precise and attack the golf course. I think Jordan falls into that category.”
Curtis Strange, also a two-time U.S. Open champ, downplayed concerns about McIlroy’s injury shifting more of the spotlight on to Spieth’s young shoulders. But he did question Spieth’s decision to play last week in the U.S. rather than in Europe, followed by a Sunday night flight to Scotland.
“I don’t think it puts more pressure on Jordan that Rory is not there. Jordan is such a focused, poised young man,” Strange said. “Now, there’s a couple of things that are real obstacles. One is jet lag. That’s a real thing. And the speed of the greens. To get used to those is a real thing. He has his hands full preparing for the Open.”
Paul Azinger, winner of the 1993 PGA, acknowledged that Spieth’s four victories and 11 top-10 finishes at tour events this season make him a likely contender in any event. At any course.
“My favorite thing about Jordan Spieth is that he is who we think he is,” Azinger said. “He’s just a good guy who’s got his act together. He’s an old head on a young body.”
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Five reasons why Spieth won’t win the British Open
1 The layout at St. Andrews, more than most major-championship venues, plays into the hands of power players who can carry tee shots over the trouble spots and take advantage of the course’s wide fairways. That worked for John Daly (1995) and Tiger Woods (2000, 2005) during triumphs at the Old Course. Spieth, who ranks 76th in driving distance among PGA Tour competitors, does not play a comparable power game to today’s longest hitters.
2 Fort Worth’s Ben Hogan, a Hall of Famer who won nine major championships, is the only professional golfer to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same season. And Spieth, at 21, is not at the same level as Ben Hogan … yet.
3 It’s hard to win tournaments in consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour. Only 11 players in tour history have won a major championship in the week following another tournament triumph.
4 Spieth will be playing his first tournament at St. Andrews, a venue that most tour veterans have played on multiple occasions. He lacks their inherent knowledge of the venue and that could cost him some strokes this week.
5 Jet lag is real for trans-Atlantic passengers, meaning Spieth’s short stay in Scotland (three days) before Thursday’s opening round may not give him time to be at his physical peak.
Five reasons why Spieth will win the British Open
1 Regardless of how far you hit it off the tee, the bottom line is getting the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes. Spieth leads the PGA Tour in scoring average (68.8) and ranks second in most birdies per round (4.52). Those digits will play anywhere.
2 Spieth, 21, has made a habit of doing things earlier in his career than most Hall of Famers who preceded him. Spieth already has won two majors before his 22nd birthday. Tiger Woods, by comparison, did not claim his second major until he was 23, at the 1999 PGA. Woods won seven of 11 majors during one stretch in his prime. Who is to say Spieth is not in the middle of a similar stretch in his career?
3 Spieth has been in contention in nearly every tournament he’s played this season. He’s got four victories and 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at PGA Tour events. It is the exception when he is not part of the Sunday storyline with a title on the line.
4 Spieth is the No. 2 player in the world golf rankings. With top-ranked Rory McIlroy sidelined by an ankle injury, Spieth is the top-ranked golfer in the field at the British Open. That status and skill set trumps any lack of course knowledge.
5 Spieth is 21 and in prime physical condition. Guys like him laugh at jet lag. Besides, this clearly is his year. During a vacation in the Bahamas after last month’s U.S. Open win, Spieth caught a tuna and a shark on the same cast. The shark began eating the tuna as Spieth began reeling it in. Naturally, he landed both. Next item to land: the claret jug.
Jimmy Burch handicaps the top 10 players, with odds, to win the 2015 British Open:
4-1 Jordan Spieth He’s the hottest player on the planet and he won’t be dealing with top-ranked Rory McIlroy this week. Why pick anyone else?
5-1 Bubba Watson Power player has won two Masters titles and has the short-game skills to collect his third major championship this week.
6-1 Dustin Johnson PGA Tour’s longest hitter blew a chance to win the U.S. Open on the 72nd green. A better finish in Scotland gets it done.
8-1 Rickie Fowler Last week’s winner at the Scottish Open has won twice this season and seems to have his game primed for St. Andrews.
10-1 Louis Oosthuizen Stellar ball-striker won the last British Open played at St. Andrews in 2010. And he dusted the field by seven strokes.
12-1 Justin Rose No. 8 player in world rankings has been a consistent leader board presence at most majors the past three seasons.
14-1 J.B. Holmes Houston Open champ is a big hitter who struggles on fast greens. He could surface if wet weather slows the greens this week.
15-1 Martin Kaymer German golfer plays best in big events. He’s won the U.S. Open (2014), PGA (2010) and The Players Championship (2014).
18-1 Branden Grace European Tour stalwart came close at the U.S. Open (T-4), could seal the deal in Scotland.
20-1 Tiger Woods Despite recent struggles, he’s the only player in the field who has won two British Open titles at St. Andrews. Don’t count him out.