Jordan Spieth got to experience one of the great British traditions at Royal Birkdale, a wet, windy afternoon at the seaside. It was a day out so damp, so dismal, that eventually even the Pollyannas in the crowd telling everyone “it’ll soon blow over” had to admit that it was going to do no such thing and to join the scurry for the precious few scraps of cover around the course.
The rain got so heavy that the R&A decided to suspend play, so Spieth and his partners, Henrik Stenson and Si-Woo Kim, all got to stand around under umbrellas and enjoy the view for 15 minutes. All they were missing was a flask of tea and a couple of sticks of soggy rock. “I’d gladly have stayed on the couch,” Spieth said, “for even par.”
Still he enjoyed it more than one would imagine a Texan might. He rated his first round here as one of the five best he had ever played in a major but his second was just as good in its own way.
Earlier in the week he said he reckoned the weather made the Open the easiest of the four majors. “Most of the time there’s a group that gets the worst of it,” he explained, “and it’s almost impossible to win in that circumstance.” His theory is that this means “you’re actually playing against a smaller field, so your percentage chances go up” – unless, that is, you have end up in playing in the worst of it yourself. Which he did.
In which case Spieth said, “There’s nothing you can do about that other than keep your head down, play as well as you can and see what happens.” Last time he was playing in these conditions, on the Friday afternoon at Royal Troon last year, what happened was that he shot 75. But this time around he took control of the Championship. He shot 69, with four bogeys, three birdies and an eagle. By the time he made it into the clubhouse at eight in the evening, there were seven others under par and only a handful of players still on the course.
The rain arrived at Birkdale almost exactly as Spieth did, the first few drops sweeping across just as he took to the 1st tee. It was only a spray, the spindrift of a wave that was a way off yet. One could see it coming in the ominous grey clouds lurking down the coast, blown in by the stiff onshore wind and closing all the while.
Spieth made a birdie on the 1st, after splitting the fairway with a fine long tee-shot and dropping his approach down close enough for an easy putt. He did not know it yet, but that was as good as it was going to get for the next two hours. Soon those grey clouds were overhead.
In the meantime it was the wind which was causing him trouble. At the 2nd it carried his ball into the fairway bunker down the right side. He dug the ball out to the front of the green and scuttled a little punch shot up to six feet from the cup. The wind bothered him on the green too, as he stepped away from his par putt before he put it in. Then he dropped a shot at the 3rd, waiting for a break which never came on a long putt from the edge of the green. That left him a tricky second from five feet which he missed.
So far as bogeys go, this one at least had an upside. It meant Kim had the honour at the 4th, where the tee sits in the lee of a large grandstand. His tee shot rose up above it and was blown way over the back of the green into the bushes. After seeing that, Stenson and Spieth thought twice about their own club selection. As for Kim, he had to make the long, lonely walk back up the fairway to tee-off for a second time, plonked that one into a bunker and left with a triple-bogey six. Around Royal Birkdale, things go wrong awfully quick when you let them slip.
So Spieth got busy scrambling to hold on to his lead. After dropping that shot he made par on each of the next five holes. He played some wonderful golf in among it. There was a 30ft putt on the 5th that rolled right up to the very edge of the hole and a deft escape from a green-side bunker at the 6th, which curled round the camber to two feet.
Better yet was a brilliant chip in from 30 feet off the back of the green to save par at the 10th. He had dropped a shot at the 9th after he overshot the green but he was still four under. And then, when the deluge passed and the wind fell, he pounced.
Spieth made back-to-back birdies at the 11th and 12th, the first with a rolling 30ft putt, the second with a tap-in after a pinpoint tee-shot. If those were all his own work, he got a little lucky at the 15th, where he caught his second with the heel of his 3-wood. It skittered up on to the green anyway, which left him grinning at his good fortune. From there he made a 15ft putt for eagle. It was bracketed by bogeys at the 14th and 16th but even so it felt like a telling blow. Not that he was thinking about that when he came off. “Honestly,” he said, “right now I’m happy just to be inside.”