If the adage about the magnitude of a week in politics has never been more readily applicable, we have cause to reflect upon what 12 months can mean for golf.
A year ago, golf was in the grip of a spell cast by Jordan Spieth. The young Texan had claimed the Masters and US Open, leaping on to the pedestal held by Rory McIlroy on account of back-to-back major titles to close out 2014. A constantly moving storyline was not about to ease.
Spieth would rightly object to any claim that his status has properly wilted. Still – and possibly in a nod towards just how terrific Tiger Woods was in his prime – domination as widely predicted has not unfolded. Spieth’s management did their client few favours with the acceptance of a round-the-world golfing expedition last winter. The 22-year-old has appeared in various states of technical flux and on-course discontent this season; the pertinent aspect there being an ability to compete even when Spieth is a considerable distance from his best.
Spieth is not of a mind to overplay what has preceded this Open. “What’s interesting is every year from when I was about 12 years old, I had a more significant accomplishment than the year before,” he says. “I felt like I was a better player than the year before, and this is the first year where I don’t have, to this point, an amount of significant accomplishments that I can say: ‘Hey, that was a stronger year than last year.’ Every single year before that, I can say that.”
The challenge to Spieth from Jason Day arrived even before 2015 was over, the Australian making a major breakthrough at the US PGA Championship. Day won another five times between August and mid-May, securing his position as the world No1. Suddenly, we had a new hero.
Often lost in analysis of Day’s rise is that the one to get away played a more important motivational role than anything he actually won. At St Andrews last year, Day was reduced to tears when he fell one stroke outside the Open play-off. His response was no coincidence. “I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” the 28-year-old explained of the bitter taste of falling so marginally short. From that point onwards, his form was rocket-fuelled.
Hopefully Day did not get too comfortable. Even he, still the world No1, has been upstaged by the recent performances of Dustin Johnson. Spieth has dubbed Johnson as “arguably the most talented golfer in the world” which, clearly, represents high praise. Johnson’s earlier problem was the failure to endorse such brilliance with major results. Now he has succeeded Spieth as the US Open champion and won the very next event he entered, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. At 32, Johnson may have opened major floodgates.
Johnson’s dominant game is such that he can prevail at any venue. The level of rain in Scotland during recent weeks – and expected for the Open – means Troon will be lush rather than brown and bouncy. That notwithstanding, stereotypical comment about the failure of American golfers to comprehend links venues does not apply in this case; Johnson should have won the Open before, in 2011 at Royal St George’s.
“He has a different confidence and belief, it seems, as well as his game is clicking,” says Phil Mickelson. “You look at the way he played at the Bridgestone, he wasn’t off to a great start. He ended up having a tough second round but he knew if he just kind of kept in there, the way he has been playing, he would have a good chance. Sure enough, he won the golf tournament.
“He has the game to really step it up and win a lot of tournaments and you’re starting to see that. He is so dominant off the tee with his accuracy and his length, that he is playing par four and fives from positions that gives a distinct advantage over many of the other guys in the field.”
But what of McIlroy? The ankle injury that disrupted his summer of 2015 means the Northern Irishman’s last Open Championship stroke, on the 18th green at Royal Liverpool, was the precursor to receiving the Claret Jug in the most illustrious moment of his career thus far. McIlroy will inevitably draw on that scene for inspiration during the coming week but he is in the midst of an odd year during which flashes of brilliance have been offset by costly errors. It will, and should, irk McIlroy that he now lies fourth in the world rankings.
A quirk of Troon Opens is the run of six American champions in a row, stretching back to Arnold Palmer in 1962. The prevailing wind, whipping from the Firth of Clyde, renders the closing six holes as similar to treadmill running. Even before that, the 11th offers one of the most fear-inducing tee shots in golf. Since the last Open to be hosted by the Ayrshire course was in 2004, a significant number of this year’s competitors will be delving into fresh territory.
Day, Spieth, McIlroy and Johnson all fall into that category. They also have the same goal: to turn such a regularly evolving narrative in their own direction, even if evidence suggests the focus will not remain in place for long.
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