SOUTHPORT – “What an incredible honour.” That was how Jordan Spieth described winning the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on Sunday.
Spieth recovered from the brink of a disastrous collapse to regain his nerve and win the Open with a breathtaking late flourish.
The 23-year-old American ended up shooting a one-under-par round of 69 to finish on 12-under-par and claim his third major title by three strokes from compatriot Matt Kuchar.
The Texan, who won the US Masters and US Open in 2015, joined Jack Nicklaus as one of only two players to win three legs of the career grand slam before turning 24. Tiger Woods was 24 when he won his third different major.
Spieth began the day with a three-stroke lead, but saw that evaporate on the front nine – where he made four bogeys and a birdie to enter the turn sharing the lead with Kuchar on eight-under – before he steadied himself and surged to victory.
Clutching the Claret Jug awarded to the winner, Spieth, the youngest American to win the Open Championship and the youngest from any country since a 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros in 1979, said his victory was “a dream come true”.
“I drank some wine from the Claret Jug when Zach Johnson won it two years ago, and people said that was bad luck. I started to believe them too after nine holes today,” he added.
“I’m going to take this back to America, which may upset a few of you all, but I’ll return it. Thank you very much, what an incredible honour.”
But there was very nearly a historic meltdown from Spieth equal only in recent times to his own collapse in the 2016 Masters, when he threw away a five-stroke lead halfway through his final round to hand the green jacket to Danny Willett.
“This was eventful. Seventeen pars and a birdie would have been fine too, but there are a lot of roads to get there,” Spieth said after receiving the Claret Jug to go with the $1.85 million cheque for the winner.
Spieth had let a three-stroke overnight advantage fritter away by the fourth hole. Although he soon moved two ahead again, he was playing some wayward stuff off the tee in particular and catastrophe nearly struck at the par-four 13th.
After hitting his drive miles right into unplayable thick rough, Spieth became engaged in a lengthy debate with officials before taking a drop from the adjacent practice ground.
The images brought back memories of Jean van de Velde’s infamous collapse at Carnoustie in 1999, when he ended up in a water hazard at the last as he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But somehow Spieth salvaged a bogey to trail Kuchar by just one shot, and the response on the following holes was emphatic. A birdie at the short 14th came after he nearly holed his tee shot, and he then went eagle-birdie-birdie to see off Kuchar’s own charge.
“I was in a tough one early on, but I showed resilience. As you can imagine, thoughts came in from my last scenario where I was leading a major on a Sunday,” Spieth added.
“The wheels had kind of come off everything, and we were trying to work out how to get back on track to salvage the round, and it took a bogey to do so. When that (birdie) putt went in, (it) was my first vocal appreciation of the day. And I knew that we had momentum on our side, and we were tied.
“All of a sudden I felt and believed that I could win that golf tournament, when 30 minutes prior and really the entire day after the fourth hole, I didn’t feel that way.”
Kuchar had been hoping to extend that run and become the sixth champion from the last seven Opens aged 39 or older. “It’s crushing. It hurts. And there is excitement and a thrill to have played well, put up a battle, put up a fight,” said Kuchar.
“You work so hard to get to this position, you don’t get many opportunities. To be this close, taste it with five holes to go, it’s a hard one to sit back and take.”
China’s Li Haotong caused a sensation as he came from nowhere to finish third thanks to a seven-under-par final round of 63. The 21-year-old finished on six-under for the championship and his is the best ever finish for a Chinese golfer in a major.
His round would have equalled the best ever in a major had Branden Grace of South Africa not shot 62 on Saturday.
Rory McIlroy, the 2014 champion, finished with a 67 to share fourth on five-under with Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and Grace was joint-sixth on four-under.
Last year’s winner Henrik Stenson ended on three-under, but his playing partner, world number one Dustin Johnson, shot 77 and finished way down on four-over.