Saturday 18 November 2017

Jordan Spieth on centre stage as Watson makes final bow

Grand Slam chaser aims to create his own Open legend at St Andrews

Jordan Spieth hopes to emulate fellow Texan Ben Hogan who claimed the first three Majors of the year in 1953 if he triumphs next Sunday
Jordan Spieth hopes to emulate fellow Texan Ben Hogan who claimed the first three Majors of the year in 1953 if he triumphs next Sunday
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Tom Watson, 65, bids farewell to St Andrews and the Open Championship 40 years after the first of his five Claret Jug triumphs.

Jordan Spieth, 21, readies himself to contend for a place in history, with the potential to achieve something that eluded Watson, Jack Nicklaus, and, so far, Tiger Woods.

As the winner of the Masters and the US Open, Spieth can emulate fellow Texan Ben Hogan who claimed the first three Majors of the year in 1953 if he triumphs next Sunday.

The presence of these great golfers, one whose career at the top is ending, and another whose journey has just begun, highlights the magic, the charm and the enduring legacy of Open Championship golf.

One more time, Watson will steel himself for a British Open, and the Scottish crowds will flock to see him perform on this ancient stage over the next two days.

He would love to make it last for four rounds, but either way, the time has come to make his exit from the highest level of a sport which he has graced with dignity, ferocious competitiveness and a wonderful level of achievement.

And yes, it hurts to know for certain this is the end for Watson.

"I kind of just hope that I make it to Sunday," he said.

"When you get into that position in your career, you're just hoping to make it to Sunday. Then it's really time to hang them up."

The sadness of finishing will be set aside as Watson strives to go out on a high note.

"I'm out here to compete. I've prepared right. I've prepared properly. I've got a game plan. I'm still trying to compete against these players out here," he added.

Well, the player 'out here' who has occupied most attention in the build-up is Jordan Spieth, and he and Tom Watson will effectively be playing two different tournaments.

For the veteran, it's all about pride. For Spieth, everything is geared towards achieving the next target, reaching the next goal.

The concept of jet lag has been brushed aside.

Doubts expressed by outsiders, including Tom Watson, about the wisdom of staying in America to play the John Deere Classic, even though he won on Sunday, are similarly firmly, but politely dismissed.

Team Spieth is on message and have their plans in place to give young Jordan every chance to succeed.

"By tomorrow morning I'll be 100 per cent, which we knew ahead of time, or else I wouldn't have played last week," Spieth said.

"Just the hardest part is definitely jet lag and probably the fact that we've had perfect weather playing this golf course, so it seems a little easier than I think it'll play.

"I would have liked to see tougher conditions in practice rounds to get use to prevailing winds and wind switches. But that's part of the fun and adjustment."

No matter how he slices it up, he is short on St Andrews experience and this is only his third Open Championship since he was virtually the last qualifier by virtue of his 2013 John Deere Classic win the week before the Open at Muirfield.

He finished tied-44 there and tied-36 at Hoylake last year which was won by Rory McIlroy. Now, Spieth has zoomed up the world rankings and is a man to be feared when he's showing up near the top of any leaderboard.

Even he is somewhat surprised, although he always had the vision and the ambition to attain this standard of golf.

"When I played at Muirfield, which is to this day one of my favourite courses and one of my favourite tournaments I've ever played, I got into contention there on Saturday and started to make a little move.

"I remember almost thinking that was too big for me at the time, in a way. I felt like I wanted to compete, I loved the pressure and felt I could do it, but it was a position I've never been in, and it was an odd feeling being in contention in a Major on a weekend.

"It was brief. I didn't finish well that round. But it was enough to make me feel that's certainly where I want to be and now that's where I expect myself to be, versus feeling odd in that position," said Spieth.

There is no doubt that what you see is what you get with this young man.

Politeness, humility in the proper sense of the word in which he acknowledges his own considerable strengths without the need for bluster or boasting, and a huge work ethic underpinned by a desire to win every time - these are the hallmarks of Jordan Spieth.

Whether it will be enough to negotiate a course that has stood the test of hundreds of years and which has produced great champions in the previous 28 Opens that have been staged here is another question.

Spieth has to contend with other young men who are just as hungry, talented and tough as he is.

Rickie Fowler boosted his pre-tournament ratings with a smash-and-grab in fine style at the Scottish Open on Sunday with a closing 68 on a wind-lashed links.

His victory in The Players Championship this season propelled Fowler up the rankings and he has a real chance of a maiden Major win.

Dustin Johnson has to just keep knocking on the door, no matter how disheartening it has been to get into the final group on the last day four times in Majors and fail to get the job done.

He does seem to be the type of character who can brush off a disappointment such as Chambers Bay that would gut other players.

If Johnson can bomb those drives out as he did in the US Open, and keep making chances, he cannot be discounted.

Louis Oosthuizen was a course-and-distance winner at St Andrews in 2010. Good memories will fuel his performance, while Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose and Adam Scott have the potential for a good tilt at the title.

And what of the Irish? Shane Lowry right now is the best of them, but home fans would love to see Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke make a strong start and hang close to the leaders by the back nine on Sunday.

All three have proven their ability to get stuck in when the going gets tough.

Each of them knows what is required at this level and can only hope for the chance to show that this week.

Open Championship,

Live, BBC 2/Setanta Ireland, 9.0

Irish Independent

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