The Open 2015: Jordan Spieth to carry the burden of a nation

Incarnation of the American dream has history in his sights at St Andrews this week, writes Kevin Garside

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The Independent Online

You imagine that were Jordan Spieth to post a picture of his foot in a cast the week  before a major, an address would follow from Barack Obama promising an inquiry into pre-tournament protocols and  reassuring the American people that every measure would be taken to avoid a repeat.

Spieth is not so much a golfer as a construction, a beautifully sculpted representation of the model American citizen – honest, modest, hard-working, high-achieving, caring, responsible, committed, just. Bundle that little lot together with a preternatural gift for sport, in his case golf, and you have a paradigm of clean-cut goodliness.

Witness his stand this week,  eschewing the compulsion to pitch up early to adjust to the links environment ahead of the Open in order to honour an agreement to play at the John Deere Classic in Illinois, a tournament with one of the smallest prize pots on the PGA Tour. The  organisers extended an invitation to Spieth on the way up. He remembered that and put their interests before his, arguably to the detriment to his chances this week.

Professional suicide, scream some. A welcome antidote to “looking after No 1” , claim others. There’s nobility in that, and America cannot get enough of it. Golf Digest rolled out a print run dedicated specifically to him, the Jordan Spieth issue, a halo -wrapped eulogy to the boy  re-inventing the wheel. You hope for his own sanity that he looked the other way when the editor sent him his framed copy. There is a heap of burden attached to being cast as the incarnation of the American dream. Not much room for swearing, picking your nose, farting, belching, having sex out of wedlock, failing, and other stuff associated with mortals.

Philip Roth fleshes out the drawbacks with perfection in his novel American Pastoral, in which the Swede, the archetypal expression of blond, blue-eyed, Ralph Lauren masculinity, by increments falls short of the glory invested in him by peers who see only the swagger. There is an absurd expectation weighing on the boy at St Andrews after his capture of the first two majors of the season at 21. That has not diminished with the absence of Rory McIlroy, who comes at this game from an  entirely different perspective, and one that on this occasion has cost the sport the kind of dramatic tension that comes by once in a blue moon.

We have to go back 43 years to the last time two golfers arrived at the Open Championship in possession of all four majors and then the split was 3/1 in favour of Jack Nicklaus over Lee Trevino. Never in the modern era have we had two players share the honours. Like Nicklaus, who was three parts in to a potential Jack Slam, having won the 1971 US PGA Championship as well as the Masters and US Open in 1972, Spieth has history in his sights.

Statistically he has barely a prayer. The last time a golfer had a sniff was 1953 when Ben Hogan took the first three majors of the year. Such was the scheduling of the PGA Championship, then a match-play format overlapping with the Open, he was denied an opportunity to claim all four. None has completed the full monty in the same season. Then again you would have got long odds on a 21-year-old walking into St Andrews as the Masters and US Open champion.

A lot has been said about the character of the boy next door from Texas, the product of a conventional family rooted in the conservative orthodoxy upon which America is built. Grounded by a straightforward attachment to Christian values,  Spieth is the kind of boy you pray your daughter might bring home.  While this informs his approach to life, it does not make him a great golfer. Indeed, it is not clear yet what does, beyond the obvious talent for putting the ball in the hole from  almost anywhere on a green.

His execution at the Masters was ridiculous, slotting from 18 feet on the long and difficult 10th hole for one birdie as if he were tapping in, and there were plenty of other  examples. Yet on the tee box he does not stand out. When paired with McIlroy for the opening two rounds at Augusta in 2014, he was as awed as the rest of us at the Ulsterman’s effortless power, sending the ball routinely  50 yards beyond Spieth’s. 

But Spieth did not bat an eyelid. He simply managed his own ball and on that occasion stuck it closer to the pin. When McIlroy is “on”, the field might as well pack their bags. Spieth appears able to take you down when he is “off”, which is a quality all its own. This is the view of Pete Cowen, a former tour pro turned coach. Cowen steered Lee Westwood to world No 1, Graeme McDowell to the 2010 US Open, Louis Oosthuizen to the Open a month later and Charl Scwartzel to the Masters in 2011. He also has Henrik Stenson on his books. 

“If I could putt like Spieth I’d still be playing,” Cowen said. “There is something special about him. He doesn’t look as if he is doing anything out of the ordinary, but look at what he has won. He does everything well and he has balls of steel. Some people get stage fright. He doesn’t and he has been on the biggest stage.”

Spieth is scheduled to arrive at  St Andrews at midday tomorrow, giving him 48 hours to familiarise himself with terrain he has had sight of only once before, four years ago ahead of the Walker Cup in Aberdeen. Phil Mickelson, who spent a few days in Dublin before contesting the Scottish Open at Gullane this week, claims that is time enough for Spieth to scope the joint, but not to experience St Andrews in all its guises, which, when the wind changes direction, has more faces than Hydra. Then again, he is Jordan Spieth.