CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jordan Spieth already has shown a remarkable sense of the moment.
He earned his PGA Tour card by holing a bunker shot on the 18th hole and winning a playoff. In the final round before the Presidents Cup selections, he shot 62 while playing with Phil Mickelson, who told U.S. captain Fred Couples, “Dude, you’ve got to pick this guy.” And right when it looked as though Spieth might throw away another major, he nearly made an ace and followed that with an eagle on his way to winning the British Open.
That was his third major, and it brought Spieth, newly 24, to the grandest moment of all.
No one has ever won the career Grand Slam at a younger age. No one has ever completed it at the PGA Championship.
Spieth has never appeared more relaxed.
“There will be pressure,” he said. “This is a major championship. This is one of the four pivotal weeks of the year that we focus on. So there will certainly be pressure. I’m simply stating there won’t be added expectations or pressure. It’s not a burning desire to have to be the youngest to do something, and that would be the only reason there would be added expectations.”
Spieth doesn’t see his greatest challenge as the history at stake. He considers it the Quail Hollow Club course that he has played only one time, and the strongest field in golf that features a few major champions who are desperate to make sure the year doesn’t end without them adding another major.
Rory McIlroy comes to mind.
So do Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.
McIlroy is a slight favorite, mainly because he has won two times at Quail Hollow - one year with a 62, the other with a 61 - and has finished out of the top 10 just one time in his seven appearances.
“If you’re matched up on Sunday … you obviously want to be able to play against somebody like Rory who has four major championships and is one of the top couple most accomplished players in this field,” Spieth said. “But he is one to fear in that position because of what he’s capable of doing and how he’s going to do it.”
Fear is not a word Spieth uses often.
This week at the PGA Championship is more about being free from the burden of trying to win a major this year. He says he hasn’t felt this way since the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, right after he won the Masters for his first major.
“Almost like I’ve accomplished something so great this year that anything else that happens, I can accept,” he said. “That takes that pressure, that expectation away.”
After winning at Chambers Bay to get halfway to the calendar Grand Slam, he felt slightly different at the British Open. There was added pressure - if only slightly - and more expectations when he considered the prospect of winning them all in the same year. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods never got that far.
Neither did Spieth. He missed a playoff by one shot.
But there was a moment he recalled that illustrates what it means to play freely.
He holed a 50-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead with two holes to go at St. Andrews. Instead of hitting his tee shot over the Old Course Hotel to have the best angle into the 17th green, he played down the left side - the safe side. The Road Hole Bunker in his way, he missed the green to the right and then missed a 5-foot par putt. A par on the final hole ended his dream of the Grand Slam.
Looking back, Spieth said he should have gone down the right side of the 17th hole.
“One of the bigger regrets that I’ve had in golf,” Spieth said. “If I don’t pull off the shot, I hit it out-of-bounds, big whup. But I didn’t. I went down the left side that day. It was playing extremely tough. I didn’t reach the green.”
Was he affected by the added pressure? Spieth isn’t sure.
“If I was truly free, I wouldn’t have cared,” he said. “I would have taken it down the right side. I thought I could make 4 from the left instead of thinking, ‘This is my best chance to make the best score, even though it brings in a risk.’ That’s the way I feel now. Take the risks.”
What does he have to lose?
He will be playing the opening two rounds with Masters champion Sergio Garcia and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who know the feeling.
“You do think whatever happens, I’ve already won the Masters and it’s amazing,” Garcia said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to go out there and try as hard you can, because that’s what we do. That’s the only way we know how to play.”
Spieth figures he has two decades or more playing the PGA Championship if he doesn’t complete the slam this week. Only five other players have won all four modern majors - Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods.
Then again, none of the five went more than three years before adding the final leg to the Grand Slam. Palmer and Tom Watson spent their careers chasing it.
“The more years you go on playing PGAs, and if I don’t win one in the next 10 years, then maybe there’s added pressure,” Spieth said. “And hopefully, we don’t have to have this conversation in 10 years.”
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