Jordan Spieth and the what-ifs of the Open Championship

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US golfer Jordan Spieth arrives on the 17th tee during his final round on day 4 of The 149th British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's, Sandwich in south-east England on July 18, 2021. - - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Jordan Spieth walks to the 17th tee during the final round of The Open. (ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Late Saturday afternoon, Jordan Spieth returned to his rental home in Sandwich, England, and looked for something to break.

Just a few hours earlier, he’d been standing on the 17th fairway at Royal St. George’s, 60 yards out from the pin, riding a wave of success and momentum like it was 2015 all over again. One stroke off the lead at the 2021 Open Championship, he looked for all the world like he was about to claim a second Claret Jug. After four long years of wandering in golf’s wilderness, he was back — as back as you can be without winning a major, at least — and all he had to do was par his way into the clubhouse, the same way he’d done Thursday and Friday.

But while 2015-era Spieth capitalized on every opportunity, the more recent vintage seemed to miss every chance to level up. And that version of Spieth reared up at the worst possible time.

Spieth’s approach on 17 didn’t clear the hole’s false front, and he ended up with a bogey. Then — even worse — he three-putted on the 18th, missing a two-footer for par. In the space of about 15 minutes, he’d gone from controlling his destiny to getting dragged over the Royal St. George’s dunes by it.

He signed his card, declined to speak to the media, and went straight to the putting green to figure out what had gone wrong, and how to fix it as soon as possible. He had a few hours… but as it turned out, that wasn’t enough.

Late Sunday afternoon, Spieth walked off the 18th green again — he’d gone par-par to close this time — finishing at -13, two strokes behind Collin Morikawa in the 149th Open Championship.

Playing what-if with strokes lost over the course of a tournament is a sure way for a player to drive themselves to madness; you start regretting that missed putt on Thursday or that wayward drive on Friday and you’re going to paralyze yourself on Sunday. Short memories are the key to successful careers.

But there’s one key way in which Spieth’s missed opportunities did impact his chances on Sunday: positioning.

“I’d have been in the final group,” he said after his round. “If you’re in the final group, you feel like you have control.”

He’s not wrong. Witness how Morikawa wore down Louis Oosthuizen with a relentless drumbeat of pars the first six holes, then a three-birdie barrage to close the front nine. Morikawa began the day a stroke behind Oosthuizen, but two small mistakes by Oosthuizen — a bogey on the fourth and another on the seventh — led to a three-shot swing. Morikawa took the solo lead on the seventh hole, and he’d never relinquish it.

Spieth — the old Spieth, that is — lives for those kinds of mind games, the face-to-face, eye-to-eye, can-you-match-this drama of a final-round Sunday. But it’s much tougher to pull off when you’re a pairing apart from one another, and you’re communicating via scoreboard. Spieth cost himself that opportunity with Saturday’s misfire, and he knew it.

“It’s a lot nicer when stuff's happening in front of you and you can control, you can still birdie that hole,” he said. “I get off the 16th [Sunday] and it's like, ‘Well, they could birdie behind, and there's nothing I can do about it now.’ When you're the last to come in you've got the last chance on 18, and I think that's the easiest place to come from, especially when it's easier conditions.”

Spieth's been around so long that he's one of the grizzled veterans whom Morikawa is shoving aside, but the truth is that Spieth is still only 27, three years older than Morikawa. Put another way, he's still seven years younger than Phil Mickelson was when Phil won his first major. 

It's a long nine months now until the Masters. But Spieth just posted his best finish in a major since that Open Championship win in 2017, a nice complement to his T3 finish at Augusta and his first victory in four years earlier this season. It's no longer a question of what's wrong with Spieth; now it's only a matter of how much more winning he has in him. 

The 18th hole victimized Jordan Spieth at the Open Championship. (Andy Buchanan/Getty Images)
The 18th hole victimized Jordan Spieth at the Open Championship. (Andy Buchanan/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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