By Paul Ingrassia
Forget about Tiger v Phil or Rory v Ricky. With respect to Messrs Woods, Mickelson, McIlroy and Fowler, the 144th Open Championship that begins on Thursday at St Andrews in Scotland is about Jordan v History.
Jordan as in Spieth. If the 21-year-old American phenomenon lifts the trophy, he will become the first winner of golf’s first three major tournaments of the year – the Masters, the US Open and Open Championship – since Ben Hogan in 1953.
If he also wins the PGA tournament next month in Wisconsin, Spieth will stand alone as the only man to win all four professional majors in one year, golf’s fabled grand slam.
Until two weeks ago the Open, as it is referred to in Britain, promised the added allure of a Rory McIlroy-Spieth showdown.
McIlroy, 26, won the last two majors of 2014 before Spieth took the first two of 2015. But McIlroy injured his ankle playing football with friends and withdrew from the the Open. (Here’s guessing he takes a break from football for, say, 25 years.)
But Jordan v History is good enough, because Britain’s Open has dashed grand slam hopes before. In 1972 Jack Nicklaus won the Masters and US Open, only to succumb in the the Open to Lee Trevino’s miracle chip-in on the penultimate hole.
It was 30 years until anybody else started the Open with the first two legs of the grand slam in their bag.
In 2002 Tiger Woods arrived at Muirfield with a champion’s momentum, but wind and rain struck the course just before his third-round tee time and he slumped to a horrible 81.
“I put myself right there in contention after two rounds,” Woods reminisced on Tuesday. “Just happened to catch it (the weather) at the wrong time.”
In 2000-2001 Woods held all four major titles at once, but he did not win them in the same year.
As for Spieth, Woods says: “Obviously he’s in great form. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing his game plan.”
There are intriguing subplots surrounding Spieth’s bid for golf immortality. One is the possible emergence of an unlikely winner like Louis Oosthuizen.
Five years ago the then-unheralded South African won the last Open played at St Andrews.
This year he has played poorly in his two most recent tournaments but in last month’s US Open, Oosthuizen finished tied for second, just one stroke behind Spieth.
Oosthuizen carded 66-66-67 in the final three rounds on a tough links course (referring to mogul-marked ground that links land and sea) at Chambers Bay in Washington State. Had his opening round been a mediocre 75 instead of a woeful 77, Oosthuizen would have beaten Spieth.
British bookies put the betting odds on Oosthuizen this week at 20-to-25 to one. Spieth is the favourite at five-or-six to one.
Oosthuizen won the 2010 Open by seven shots. He lost the 2012 Masters in a playoff. With an affinity for St Andrews, also a links course, and a record of contending in majors, Oosthuizen is a credible challenger this year.
“I feel very confident going into the week, and I just need to hit the shots I want off the tee so I put myself in good positions,” Oosthuizen told reporters Tuesday.
An improbable subplot would be a Battle of Generations between Spieth and one of golf’s “old guns”. Maybe Mickelson, 45, winner of the 2013 Open. Or even the 39-year-old Woods, who won the Open at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005 but now is struggling like a weekend duffer.
Far-fetched? Absolutely. But American Tom Watson, a five-times Open winner who was long past his prime, was one shot away from winning the title before losing in a playoff in 2009, at age 59.
Watson will play the Open for the last time this year – 40 years after winning on his debut at Carnoustie – doubtless to cheers of nostalgia. A Sunday duel between Woods or Mickelson and Spieth would rival the now-impossible Spieth-McIlroy showdown for drama.
More likely would be a shootout between Spieth and another young gun, 26-year-old American Ricky Fowler. That would pit logic v loyalty.
Last week Fowler did the logical thing to prepare for the Open. He flew to Scotland, giving himself time to adjust to the time difference.
He played in the Scottish Open on a links course in Gullane, nearly two hours from St Andrews, and he won the tournament.
Spieth also won last week, but in the John Deere Classic in northwest Illinois, near the Mississippi River, on a wooded parkland course, a world away and six time zones behind St Andrews. Spieth did not arrive in Scotland until Monday.
It does not seem logical, but Spieth is loyal to the Deere. In 2012 the tournament gave him a special exemption to enter. A year later he won it to secure his first professional victory.
Given the vagaries of golf and the Scottish weather, anything can happen at the Open. But if Fowler does win, Spieth’s loyalty to the Deere will be second-guessed until next year’s Open. And well beyond.