Winning the Claret Jug is fun, especially when you produce the kind of amazing, frenetic finish he did last year at Royal Birkdale. But giving back the Claret Jug a year later during a pre-tournament ceremony that included a short drive in a futuristic concept vehicle, followed by a quick presentation while standing on the first tee?
Kind of a drag.
Or as Jordan Spieth put it, “It wasn’t an enjoyable experience.”
Not that he’s complaining. It’s the price that must be paid for winning The Open Championship, a price Spieth would gladly pay every year if necessary. “The traditions of The Open are very special, even if you’re on the wrong end of that one,” he said.
But while waiting there on Carnoustie’s first tee Monday in front of the curiosity seekers and tournament officials, it finally hit home that his reign as Champion Golfer of the Year is over. He had expected the transfer of the Claret Jug to be a simple behind-the-scenes process in the players’ parking lot after he pulled the black case from his car. He didn’t expect pomp and circumstance.
“Because of that, it actually hit me harder,” Spieth said. “I was like, man, this was in my possession. I took it to all the places that allowed me to get to where I am today. My family was able to take it around. Members of the team were able to take it.
“It’s the coolest trophy that our sport has to offer, so having to return that was certainly difficult. Kind of hit me a little bit there on the tee box.”
Of course, he hopes it’s only a temporary loss of title. But that’s when another reality may factor in – his 52 weeks spent as Open champion also means it’s been 52 weeks since his last victory. It’s his longest calendar drought since he turned pro. In that time, he’s played 24 events worldwide -- 22 of those on the PGA TOUR, with eight top 10s, including a couple of runner-up finishes in the FedExCup Playoffs last year.
Mostly, though, it’s been a year of frustration, especially in 2018 due to struggles with his putter (he enters this week ranked 175th on TOUR in Strokes Gained: Putting). He’s been playing, in his words, “cut-line golf,” and his schedule has been a heavy one that drained him of energy.
So getting away from the game for a few weeks has been nice. He followed his last start at the U.S. Open with a trip to Seattle to be with his sister Ellie, who participated in the Special Olympics USA Games. He also visited his caddie Michael Greller, who lives in the area. They went out to Chambers Bay, site of Spieth’s 2015 U.S. Open win, and relived some moments while walking the 18th hole.
Spieth then went to Cabo San Lucas on a vacation with friends, much like last year (you may recall the photo of Spieth with other A-listers such as Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Russell Wilson and Fred Couples). They played a little bit of golf, nothing serious.
Only last week did he get back to the grind of preparing for competitive action. “Nice to kind of have that itch to get back,” he said. “It was nice to kind of start from scratch, almost like wet concrete with parts of my game.”
He’s hoping the reboot -- along with a firm and fast Carnoustie course that expects to play different than most others in the Open rota do – will be the jumpstart he needs.
“Coming to an Open Championship requires a lot of feel and imagination, and I think that’s what I needed a bit of in my game,” Spieth said. “I’d gotten very technical and very into making everything perfect instead of kind of the way I normally play.
“This week kind of provides that opportunity where you don’t know how far the ball is necessarily going to go off the tee. You need to play the spots, and then you have to use your imagination from there – hold the ball, ride the wind, a lot of different scenarios based on where pins are and the distance that you have.”
If this week comes down to a matter of making decisions, then Spieth can draw on good vibes from a year ago at Royal Birkdale. It was his decision to play from the driving range after his wayward tee shot at the 13th hole, and when all is said and done, it may go down as the best decision of his career.
Spieth reviewed that decision on Monday, recalling that he overruled Greller, who was “pretty adamant” about hitting a second tee shot. Instead, Spieth went through the process of exploring the scenarios afforded him. He opted to take an unplayable lie so he could go in line with the hole as far back as necessary. He asked if the driving range was out of bounds. It wasn’t, so he eventually an appropriate spot (after a free drop to avoid some trailers), and the yardage was close enough to reach the green.
His ability to salvage a bogey completely shifted his mood, as he followed by playing the next four holes in 5 under to pull away from Matt Kuchar. “I looked like a different person – demeanor, player, everything,” Spieth said.
Perhaps he’ll be a different player this week than the recent form he’s shown. That’ll would require improved putting, a bit more consistency off the tee, and not overthinking his decisions. He’s confident about getting back to a winning groove – but if it happens at Carnoustie, he’d rather it not be as dramatic as a year ago.
“Even though it was so special the way it happened, that was more special for the writing and the story,” Spieth said about last year. “For me, I would’ve been more proud if I had made no bogeys and three birdies – and that would be the goal of what to do next time.”