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Jordan Spieth goes for third leg of Grand Slam at British Open

Jordan Spieth watches his approach shot on the

Jordan Spieth watches his approach shot on the 11th hole during the second round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament on Friday, July 10, 2015, in Silvis, Ill. Credit: AP / Charles Rex Arbogast

The odds are against anyone trying to get three-quarters of the way to golf's modern Grand Slam, which Jordan Spieth will attempt this week in the British Open at St. Andrews. And the odds might be the least of his obstacles.

Sometimes the forces of nature can act like a conspiracy. Tiger Woods discovered that in chilling -- literally chilling -- fashion in 2002, when he was the most recent golfer to enter the British Open after having won the Masters and U.S. Open.

Woods was at the top of his game and was in contention entering the third round at Muirfield. Then rain, wind, cold and fate teamed up to hit him with their own grand slam.

A howling British Isles squall, like something from Shakespeare's "King Lear," struck just as Woods was beginning. Before he knew what hit him, he was on his way to what was then a career-worst 81. That knocked him out of the running to become the first to win the modern Slam: the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship in one calendar year.

The lesson, 13 years later, is that there is no telling what Spieth might be up against this week.

At least the current Masters and U.S. Open champion tuned up by playing golf, not soccer. He kept his commitment to be in Silvis, Illinois, for the John Deere Classic -- site of his first professional victory -- rather than head over to Scotland and get acclimated.

That was seen as a risky choice. But he was better off than defending British Open champion Rory McIlroy, who said he severely injured his left ankle playing soccer with friends, knocking him out of the tournament field.

"My favorite thing about Jordan Spieth is that he is who we think he is," said Paul Azinger, a former British Open champion who will be working the event on ESPN. "He's just a good guy who has got his act together, and he's an old head on a young body. He is strategic in his approach, and he just seems grateful. He's not an entitlement guy. He works for everything he has got, and he just seems grateful for it."

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee pointed out that Spieth's Texas-honed game includes all of the skills required at St. Andrews: searing "hold-the-line" shots that work in crosswinds, creativity on chip shots, excellent lag putting. Plus, Spieth proved his adaptability at Chambers Bay, one of the quirkiest major venues in years.

"His golf IQ is very high," Chamblee said. "He's got, for lack of a better term, an internal tachometer that knows when to rev and when to hold back."

Sometimes, though, there is nothing you can do. Woods witnessed that early in the Saturday round 13 years ago. He missed out on the balmy conditions that greeted players before him and was too far along to enjoy the calm that benefited players who followed him (including eventual champion Ernie Els).

The few people who walked the course with him can vividly remember the sight of Woods digging his hands into his pockets and turning his back to brace against the wind, then hitting a solid shot that fell way short of the par-3 fourth green.

Des Smyth, who was tied for third at the time, said back then, "It was more like a December, January day."

Englishman Ian Garbutt said, right after his own round, "At one point out there, about the fifth or sixth, I was just hoping to get in alive."

He was fine. It was Woods' Grand Slam ambition that didn't make it.

When Woods finally made his first birdie of the day, on No. 17, he doffed his cap and made a pronounced theatrical bow. Years later, he told ESPN.com, "It was the hardest conditions I've ever played in."

Despite shooting 65 the next day, he tied for 29th.

Woods will be there this week, returning to a course on which he has won twice. His game still is a work in progress.

For a change, he will command less of the stage than someone else. Spieth will be the headliner as he goes up against history, the odds and who knows what else.

For his part, Spieth did not seem burdened during his John Deere news conference. He was animated, talking about his successful 2 1/2-hour struggle with a shark during a recent Bahamas vacation. The 21-year-old figures the golf will take care of itself.

"I don't care about the added pressure of 'can you win multiple [majors] in a row?' Or what that could mean for this year, the Grand Slam talk," he said.

"The point is, when I'm in contention at a tournament, the only thing on my mind is that tournament."

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