Monday 21 August 2017

Odds stacked against Spieth in treble bid

Jordan Spieth of the United States falls over laughing as he plays a practice round at St Andrews
Jordan Spieth of the United States falls over laughing as he plays a practice round at St Andrews
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Padraig Harrington, a three-time Major winner, knows how difficult Jordan Spieth's task is this week at St Andrews.

Spieth, the hottest player on the planet at present, arrived in Scotland yesterday with the John Deere Classic title secured on Sunday and a third successive Major title of the season in his sights.

The Masters in April - that box was checked. The US Open at Chambers Bay last month - that box, too, was checked.

Could it be possible that this guy can go where only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have previously gone before and win three in a row in the same year?

Factors

Harrington looks at a number of factors, including the player's game and personality, the timing of his earlier achievements and the weight of history that must also be taken into account.

Harrington broke the mould in magnificent style for Irish golf by claiming the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie; he retained his title at Royal Birkdale in 2008, then landed the US PGA Championship just weeks later at Oakland Hills.

A cohort of other stars, including Rory McIlroy, have won two Majors in the same season.

Last year McIlroy was superb in winning the Open at Hoylake and the US PGA, emulating Harrington in that sequence of July and August Major victories.

Beyond that, two in succession starting with the Masters is a rarity. Only seven players have done it, including Spieth.

The others were Craig Wood (1941), Sam Snead in '49, when the Masters was followed by the US PGA, Hogan ('51 and '53), Arnold Palmer ('60), Jack Nicklaus ('72), and Woods (2002).

Hogan in '53 went on to also win the Open Championship, but by playing Carnoustie, he missed the US PGA because of a date clash, so there was no possibility of the Grand Slam of professional Majors.

So there it is: it's rare to win the first two Majors of any season.

Securing a treble is also rare, but Woods in 2000 - US Open, British Open, US PGA - showed that it is achievable, and Spieth has the ability to do it.

Harrington rules nothing out, but the hard-earned experience gained in 19 previous Open Championships makes him cautious about forecasting a Spieth victory, albeit that the American looks to be in unstoppable form.

"You can't over-emphasise being on a run and confidence. As difficult as it is to do, the fact is that it's coming pretty quickly after he won his last one," said the Dubliner.

"He's feeling pretty good about his game. He's making good things happen, so I would think it's extraordinarily difficult to win three-in-a-row, but it's probably easier to win a third in a row if it's the third or fourth one of the year rather than wait for eight months for the Masters.

"But he's got something special. He's got that X-factor. He obviously makes things happen and he's certainly running with it very nicely."

Harrington struggles to identify what it is that makes Spieth stand out, but the Irishman believes the young American should do all the can to avoid outside influences changing him as a person and especially as a golfer.

"A lot of top guys have something that sets them apart, maybe they put the fear of God into everybody else, but he's got something inside him that you don't really see," said Harrington.

"He's not standing there hitting it 20 yards past anybody else. I know he putts well, but it's not like he hasn't missed a short one or three-putted. He looks incredibly human out there, yet he has something special.

World

"The only thing he has to do is not let the outside world into his world.

"Just because he has an unorthodox grip and he looks at the hole on putts, if things aren't going well, the world will be looking to blame things that actually make him who he is.

"People will always be looking for answers.

"The greatest thing he can do is really not get outside his little world, just stay in there and not listen to anything coming from the outside world, because I guarantee you, somewhere down the road, he'll miss a four-footer and somebody will say 'that's because he was looking at the hole' and he'll miss another four-footer and somebody will say 'that's because he wasn't looking at the hole.'

"He doesn't need to listen to any of that."

Spieth was out on the course yesterday afternoon following his arrival from America and gave Harrington a cheery wave as they passed each other.

And what of his own situation on the verge of the 144th Open Championship 19 years after he took his first fledgling steps on Tour?

Harrington will be 44 in August. He's fit as a fiddle, still very competitive and dedicated, and victory on the PGA Tour in the Honda Classic last March showed his inner champion can still come to the fore.

That said, he admits that he has to dredge deep within himself to find something to gel his game together in the toughest arena of them all.

"I still need to find something to get my head in place for this week," he said.

"I still hold out hope that it is possible to find it.

"The Honda gives me hope that it is possible to find it and it can work at short notice, but I do need to find some piece of the jigsaw out there.

"It's not technical, it's completely internal. It's completely in my own thinking, without a doubt.

"Once you've achieved a lot, you have to find a different sense of motivation."

If he was a soccer player, Harrington would be retired. Golfers have the advantage of longevity, but it can take its toll over the long haul.

"That's the nature of the game. You just mentioned 19 years. You'd look long and hard to find anybody who has achieved their goals in this game and is still playing and competing after 19 years," he said.

"I have just to figure something out. I can't play the same way I played seven or eight years ago.

"Again, that's the nature of golf and I'm a different person, but I still love playing golf."

Yesterday Harrington took his time in playing a solo practice round, accompanied by his caddie Ronan Flood, and with a number of friends, including JP McManus and Paul McGinley watching him at work.

Harrington had referenced two particular holes, the 14th and 17th, as posing a particular threat, and he hit five drives at the 17th before he was satisfied.

"I am still scared of my life of the tee shot on the 14th and the tee shot on 17," he confessed.

"The 17th is much tougher now. With the new back tee, if it is any way cold you can't afford to mis-hit it down the right-hand side.

"Off the front tee, it could be three-wood and nine-iron. It's a big hole off that back tee now."

Irish Independent

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