ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — There were two different tournaments played at St. Andrews: the one between 21-year-old Jordan Spieth and history on the Old Course, and then there was the contest between everyone else. While Zach Johnson was winning the British Open in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman, young Spieth was watching and learning, and counting the ways he lost the third leg of the Grand Slam.
Golf’s greatest youth traded blows with nature on the game’s most ancient layout, and came up just inches and a stroke short after shooting 3-under-par 69 in the final round. It was as if all the elements of this old haunt had gathered to teach him a lesson that the game is not as easy as he makes it seem.
“I’ve certainly closed plenty of tournaments out, and this just wasn’t one of those,” the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion said. “It’s hard to do that every single time.”
This was what Johnson had to do to seize the 144th Open title away from Spieth: survive a weather-lashed, grinding five-day work week to shoot a final-round 66 and fend off seven other players who had shares of the lead, and even then the balding 39-year-old wasn't done. He had to march back out in the rain and dimming night and beat two younger men, Oosthuizen, 32, and Leishman, 31, over four holes in a duel of putting nerves that didn't end until 8 p.m. locally, and left him seemingly numb with exhaustion for a moment, and then in tears.
"This has been a trying week," he said. ". . . I just waited and waited and waited for my opportunity."
Johnson was hardly the most likely man to win when the day began; in fact he wasn’t even among the last five twosomes to tee off. A devout, unpretentious Iowan, he was “under the radar,” as he put it. But he was also a proven major champion, winner of the 2007 Masters, and a man with a hot putter. Out ahead of Spieth and the rest of a logjammed leader board in slightly milder weather, he ran off seven birdies in his first 12 holes and needed just 26 putts to complete his round.
“I guess that radar is going bonkers right now,” he said.
Spieth did not have the luxury of invisibility. By all rights he should be a college senior, but instead he was trying to become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to sweep the first three majors of the season. This is how close he came: He was tied for the lead with two holes to play. "Truthfully, he could be sitting here," Johnson said. Instead he watched the playoff finish from the porch of the archaic parchment-stone R&A clubhouse, and then graciously congratulated Johnson.
“I can’t describe the magnitude as to what he was going through,” Johnson said.
How many ways did Spieth lose? He three-putted five times in a second round that took 39 hours to play in a classic Scottish gale. In the final round, he four-putted for a double bogey on the par-3 eighth hole. And he bogeyed the infamous 17th Road Hole, arguably the most difficult par-4 in the game, when he missed a five-foot par save that cost him a place in the playoff. It could all be attributed to his status as a novice at St. Andrews in the rough Scottish conditions; it certainly wasn’t a lack of boldness, or grit. By finishing among the top 10 at the British Open after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, he joined three men: Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Spieth’s lack of experience worked against him all week. Earlier this season he laughingly remarked that he just “came out of diapers a couple years ago.” He won the Masters in April at an age when his peers were getting ready to graduate from the University of Texas. Just a few minutes after that victory, he started discussing a slam — to laughter in the room. He said, “Can’t win four unless you win the first, right.”
But he simply lacked enough know-how to conquer St. Andrews among so many other good, clutch, experienced players. He had played here just once before, as a teenaged amateur.
During the final round, rain ran down the players’ necks on the downwind holes going out, it whipped them crossways across the face on the shepherd’s crook, and then spit right in their faces on the finishing holes.“ A beautiful Scottish summer day,” Johnson said.
At the 174-yard par-3 eighth hole, it made Spieth uncomfortable. “When you look up from the ball and you’re getting pelted in the face, it’s a hard shot,” he said.
It caused him to mis-hit an iron 40 yards from the pin. Afraid of being short with the putt, he whacked his first one too aggressively 15 feet past the pin. When he finally he tapped in for his double bogey, he left the green with two bright spots of fury in his cheeks.
Which made what he did next all the more impressive. One of the things Spieth has demonstrated is that he might have the best mental game since Nicklaus. With his cheeks still flaming, he promptly birdied the ninth and 10th holes in succession.
The kid was still one down with three holes to play. But at the 418-yard par-4 16th, Spieth curled a 50-foot double breaker around a hump — and dropped it in the side of the cup. Finally in a tie for the lead, he lifted his putter in the air and double-pistoned his fists and bellowed, “Come on!”
But then came the Road Hole, the 495-yard narrow-necked monster. He made par just once there all week. After his drive he still had 250 yards to the hole, and couldn’t get there. He hit a wedge to about six feet, but just a little uncertainty plagued him. He imagined a break that wasn’t there, and missed the putt. “I read too much into it,” he said.
The wide-open 18th hole was birdie-able — but Spieth misplayed it with a poor drive and a wedge into the deep swale called the valley of sin. He made a valiant try with his putter, got up and out, but missed the hole by just three inches. His major championship run was over.
“I’m going to go home and reflect,” he said. “It won’t hurt too bad.”
Johnson watched it all from the practice green just adjacent to the 18th hole. Just a few minutes earlier, he had rolled in a meandering 30-foot birdie putt there to get to 15-under 273, which sent him into a celebratory crouch and his caddie Damon Green into a chicken strut.
In the playoff, Johnson’s putter was still the best club in anyone’s bag all day. He birdied the first two holes with a pair of curling 15-footers, and they were the crucial margins. On the final hole of the playoff, he watched with no expression, while inwardly reciting scripture, as Oosthuizen missed a putt that finally ended this siege of a tournament. “The key, certainly for the week, was patience and perseverance,” Johnson said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.