An unusual aspect of golf is that people involved with it are thrilled when something in their game becomes “bigger than golf.” They love it when a story draws interest well beyond the usual confines. Thus, there is excitement this week over Jordan Spieth, who is in position to do the unprecedented.
He put himself in position by having hit a shot that was itself way beyond the usual confines. His dramatic recovery from a massively errant tee shot at the British Open sent him to an astonishing victory and landed him within range of history. If he wins the PGA Championship this week, he will be the youngest ever to complete the career Grand Slam — Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA.
Spieth turned 24 since he won the claret jug at Royal Birkdale, but he still is eight months younger than Tiger Woods was when he completed the slam in 2000. So, the tournament at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina has the potential to attract much more attention than the PGA normally does.
“I think there is a chance for this kid — and he’s just a kid — to really change the way people think about golf right now and to put it back in the Tiger mode,” said Dottie Pepper, the former LPGA tour standout who will work the event for CBS. “There’s the opportunity to do something that no one has done.”
This will be Spieth’s only shot to set a “youngest” mark while joining a fraternity of icons: Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen are the only ones ever to have completed the modern career Slam. He has the chance to do it in the only major that Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson failed to win.
“He can say, ‘I’m only (24), I’m going to get this someday,’ or ‘I’d like to get it right now, when I’m hot,’ ” said Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion who will be the lead analyst for CBS this week. “That will be part of the fascinating story.”
The fascination began on Sunday at Royal Birkdale when Spieth capped what appeared to be a classic meltdown with an extremely wayward tee shot, over a dune, on the 13th hole. After long discussions with tournament officials, he took a penalty stroke and a drop on the driving range, beyond equipment trailers. He made bogey and fell behind Matt Kuchar by a stroke. Then he stormed back, playing the next four holes in 5 under par and winning by three.
With that, Spieth changed golf’s narrative. Each of the previous seven majors was won by a first-time major champion. Now, the focus is on repetition. In each of the next three majors, someone has a chance to complete the career Slam: Spieth this week, Rory McIlroy at the Masters and Phil Mickelson in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Spieth did it with a flourish that at least mildly stirred people who are not golf fans. Which brings him and his sport to fresh territory at Quail Hollow.
“I’m not really finding any negatives in this,” Spieth said this week at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. “What makes it more difficult than just saying it’s another major is that it’s one a year now instead of four a year that that focuses on (the Grand Slam), if that’s what the focus is. But my focus isn’t on completing the career Grand Slam. My focus is on this, the PGA Championship.”
He was sufficiently upbeat to expound on that forever famous tee ball near the English coast. “It was not 100 yards right,” Spieth said. “Our fairway is the right rough on that hole. It was raining. When there’s water on the ball, the ball squirts to the right. Now, I missed the right side of the fairway by 20-ish yards, it hit a guy in the head and went over the mound. So, it was essentially 20 yards offline. I need to back myself up here and say that I’m capable of hitting worse shots, OK?”
To be sure, there are other plot lines this week, such as whether McIlroy can escape a malaise now that he has fired his caddie. What about Dustin Johnson, still technically world No. 1 but not nearly the same since he injured his back on the eve of the Masters? And will Kuchar rise with the tide of sentiment he earned by being such a good sport?
But the most-watched story will be one involving Spieth, the one bigger than golf.
Just the facts
What: 99th PGA Championship
When: First round is Thursday
Where: Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, N.C. Par 35-36 — 71, 7,600 yards.
Field: 156 players (136 tour pros, 20 club pros).
Defending champion: Jimmy Walker. He held on for par on the 18th hole at Baltusrol for a 3-under 67 and a one-shot victory over Jason Day.
Grand Slam: Jordan Spieth can become the sixth — and youngest — player with the career Grand Slam.
TV: Thursday and Friday, 1-7 p.m., TNT. Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., TNT; 2-7 p.m. Ch. 2. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., TNT; 2-7 p.m., Ch. 2.