Jordan Spieth’s Grand Slam ambitions face toughest test at British Open

Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods all saw their hopes disappear on the great links courses

Arnold Palmer hits a bunker shot during the second round of the 1960 British Open at St Andrews. Photograph: ABC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Arnold Palmer hits a bunker shot during the second round of the 1960 British Open at St Andrews. Photograph: ABC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

 

The footprints were there for Jordan Spieth to follow – the footprints of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in their pursuit of golf’s most elusive prize, a calendar-year Grand Slam. Spieth has followed those footprints through the towering pines of the Masters and the tangled rough of the United States Open at Chambers Bay to the British Open, which starts Thursday on the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland.

But the British Open is where those previous footprints disappeared – Palmer in 1960 at St Andrews, and Nicklaus in 1972 and Woods in 2002, both at Muirfield.

If Spieth is to arrive at the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan on August 13th with a chance for the Grand Slam, his footprints at St Andrews must lead to his raising the claret jug. Second place, even by only one stroke, is worthless; Palmer and Nicklaus could tell him that. Shooting a third-round 81 in rain and wind is useless; Woods could tell him that.

Palmer also could tell him how all this Grand Slam talk started. He and his Pittsburgh Press pal, Bob Drum, were high over the Atlantic on the way to St Andrews in 1960, when Palmer mentioned that a win there would keep alive his opportunity to win the “pro Grand Slam,” as opposed to Bobby Jones’s 1930 Grand Slam of the United States Open and Amateur, and the British Open and Amateur.

“Bob picked up on that and wrote that story,” Palmer has often said. “We started what is known as the pro Grand Slam.”

Palmer had emerged as America’s pro. He had won a second Masters that year with birdies on the last two holes; he had won the US Open at Cherry Hills near Denver with a final-round 65. He had put the word “charge” into golf’s vocabulary. After 54 holes at St Andrews, he was four strokes behind the leader, Kel Nagle, a little-known Australian, and when Palmer began the final round with two birdies, the Scots in his gallery were yelling, “Charge!” But as he teed off on the 17th, he still trailed by two.

In that era of persimmon drivers and less-than-nuclear golf balls, the 17th, the infamous Road Hole, was a par-5 at 483 yards. In each of the first three rounds, Palmer was on in two, then three-putted for par. But now he had a birdie four. When a roar went up for Palmer’s birdie three on the 18th for 68 and 279, Nagle was hunched over a birdie putt on the 17th. He holed it to maintain his one-stroke lead, then parred the 18th to win.

“It was putting that killed me,” Palmer told reporters later. “Putting and that doggone 17th. I never got my putter working.”

Palmer lost, but he didn’t lose his sense of humour. Tip Anderson, the renowned St Andrews caddie he had hired, later told how Palmer had hit a six-iron to the 17th green the first three rounds. In his desperation to catch Nagle in the final round, Palmer hit a five-iron onto the edge of the road behind the green.

“He made a great recovery and finally got a four,” Anderson said. “Walking to the 18th tee, he says to me, ‘Tip, you’ve cost me the Open championship.’ Of course I’m stunned. ‘What have I done?’ I asked. He looked at me sternly for a moment and then he starts to laugh. ‘You gave me the wrong club all week.’ ”

The next two years, with Anderson on his bag, Palmer won the British Open at Royal Birkdale and at Royal Troon. He would win two more Masters, in 1962 and 1964, but not another US Open, losing an 18-hole play-off in 1962 and 1963. He never put together another Grand Slam bid.

Nicklaus, who conquered Palmer in their 1962 Open play-off at Oakmont, had his Grand Slam opportunity in 1972 when he won the Masters, then the US Open at Pebble Beach, each by three strokes. For him, Muirfield was familiar, as he had won the British Open there in 1966; he also won the tournament at St Andrews in 1970.

“The course is hard and fast and will continue to get faster, particularly with the cut greens,” he said after his final practice round. “I look for a lot of irons off the tee.”

But after three rounds, those irons off most of the tees left Nicklaus six strokes behind Lee Trevino, the defending champion, and five behind Tony Jacklin, who had won the British Open in 1969 and the US Open at Hazeltine in 1970.

As Nicklaus strode onto the first tee in the fourth round, he took the club-head cover off his driver.

Big drive at the first, easy par. Big drive to the apron of the 349-yard second, birdie. He quickly had two more birdies. When a chip to three feet led to another at the ninth, he suddenly tied Trevino for the lead. With another birdie at the 10th, he led by one. At the 11th, he was hunched over a four-foot birdie putt when a roar erupted. Trevino had eagled the ninth. Nicklaus backed off, then another roar. Jacklin had eagled the ninth.

When Nicklaus holed that four-footer, he was six under for the round. Pars on the last seven holes would give him a 65, maybe enough to win or at least to create a play-off.

Nicklaus parred the next four and was tied for the lead. On the 188-yard 16th hole, his ball soared left, skidding into low rough halfway down a slope next to the green.

“Another few feet in the air,” he said later, “and it would have stayed on the green, about 25 feet from the cup.”

From the rough, Nicklaus chipped to about five feet above the hole. As he hunched over his putt, bagpipes near the distant clubhouse could be heard. His putt missed. Bogey.

After Nicklaus parred the 17th and 18th for 66, the yellow scoreboard showed Trevino and Jacklin ahead by a stroke as they played the 17th. Nicklaus disappeared into the scorer’s shed.

Suddenly, somebody shouted, “Trevino’s blown!” On the par-5 17th, Trevino’s fourth shot had hopped over the green into low rough about 15 feet from the cup.

As Nicklaus emerged from the scorer’s shed, the same voice yelled, “He holed his chip!”

Trevino’s fast-moving chip had clunked into the flagstick and disappeared for a par. Jacklin had a 15-foot putt for a birdie and the lead. He missed, then missed a comeback three-footer and bogeyed. Trevino led Nicklaus and Jacklin by one. When Trevino’s eight-iron to the 18th green floated close to the cup, Henry Longhurst intoned into his BBC microphone, “At long last, we have seen the shot that has won the Open.”

The shot that also smothered Nicklaus’s footprints in his Grand Slam bid.

“I felt a 65 would do it,” he said in the interview tent. “I had a 65 and let it get away. Lee Trevino is some good player. If I had to lose, I’m glad it was to him.”

Thirty years later, Tiger Woods arrived at Muirfield as a 7-4 favourite in the British betting shops. He had won six of the previous nine Majors, and seven of the previous 11, including the 2002 Masters and the US Open at Bethpage Black, each by three strokes.

Opening with 70 and 68, Woods trailed the five co-leaders by only two strokes after 36 holes. But as he played his third round on Saturday afternoon, a wild windblown rainstorm from the North Sea howled across Muirfield .

Woods shot 81: seven bogeys, two double-bogeys, one birdie, eight pars. At the time, it was his highest round as a pro.

“It was just blowing so hard out there, it was just difficult to stand,” he said later. “The ball is oscillating. The rain is blowing. But I tried on every shot. I didn’t bag it.”

Woods also didn’t bag it in Sunday’s final round. Although he trailed 65 other golfers when he teed off, he shot a six-under-par 65. On the 16th tee, he even dared to think he “might have had a chance” to win if he finished birdie-eagle-birdie for a 61, which would have been a record in a major. Instead, he finished with three pars. He was 16 strokes better than the day before, only six out of the four-man playoff that Ernie Els won.

Woods’s footprints were washed away in that rain-soaked 81, and he has not been able to create another Grand Slam bid.

Now a fourth golfer, the 21-year-old Spieth, has a chance at St. Andrews to extend his Grand Slam footprints beyond the British Open in the Auld Grey Toon, not too far from the Firth of Forth. Yes, the fourth and the Forth. Is that an omen?

(New York Times Service)

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