When Jordan Spieth was tapping in at the 18th after leaving yet another birdie putt short to end his tournament at 2pm, the overnight leaders were still completing their final preparations and about to head out to dispute ownership of the Claret Jug for another year.
Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson were still out on the course, moreover, and all had failed to make the expected overall impact. It was not supposed to be this way and, even though Spieth will not be 23 until the end of the month, two 40-somethings have been setting the pace and questions were, perhaps unfairly, being asked of the lack of impact by the so-called big four.
Spieth, twice a winner on tour this season but under scrutiny since his fourth round unravelled when leading the Masters at Augusta in April, actually completed his first sub-par round in a major in 11 attempts on Sunday, a three-under 68 for a two-over-par total. However, he is suffering under the scrutiny after setting such a high bar in 2015, when he won the first two majors and was a shot from the play-off in the third of them.
Reasons for that are legion but his main problem is that the comparisons can only be made with Tiger Woods, who in 1997 became the youngest Masters winner at the age of 21 and dominated the game with another 13 major titles in the next 11 years.
Commendably, the young Texan has refused to blame being on the wrong side of the draw and playing in the worst of the weather for the first two rounds, and says his putter is the reason. That much was evident early into his round on Sunday after he teed off with Jim Furyk, with the wind whipping across the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Arran all but invisible under a slate-grey sky.
Spieth had birdie putts at the first three holes and left the first four feet short, charged the second three-and-half feet past and left the third on the edge of the cup before finally getting his range at the 4th, where he made eagle from around 10ft. He did give a shot back at the 8th but then had back-to-back birdies at the 10th and 11th, made bogey at the 15th and got the shot back immediately before parring in from there.
If nothing else he will be delighted to have got his game back into some sort of shape for the US PGA at the end of this month, the fourth and final major of the year, and also to have changed the line of questioning he endures post-round. The big four, after all, is a convenient label which fluctuates, with even the official Open programme having a stab at chronicling their prospects and with the now struggling Rickie Fowler the fourth man rather than Johnson, the US Open champion.
Day, the world No1 and US PGA champion, is one who feels that playing in the second half of the draw was a factor in their poor week, if not the whole reason. “Rory and Jordan were kind of on the bad side,” Day said, “so it’s just if you call it unlucky. It may be unlucky but you’ve got to embrace it and try to play good.”
McIlroy, the No4 with four majors to his name, played through Friday afternoon’s hoolie and got it around in par, which was probably worth five fewer shots. He is another who has failed to hole crucial putts but, like Spieth, had a better time on Sunday as the weather yielded and he fired a 67 to climb the leaderboard and finish in a tie for fifth. He also has time on his side at 27 but, given the dominance of the Tiger era, he is another former world No1 to suffer by comparison. “I felt like the conditions I played this week, I played pretty good,” he said. “With what I had to play in there’s no way I would have got the scores that those guys [Stenson and Mickelson] are on.”
Johnson has produced the best showing of the quartet after playing in the best of the weather and finished in a tie for ninth but is another to blame his putting, saying that he made a lot of good strokes that did not go in on the first two days, which was when the frontrunners made their pull-away scores. “Phil and Henrik are playing good golf. I felt like if I would have played well, it’s where I would have been.”
The four are all giving the Olympics a miss and will have to get back up to speed on the greens in Canada this week in readiness for the US PGA at Baltusrol. By then Stenson, ranked No6 last week, will be up to No5 and breathing more closely down their necks as the identity of the big four comes up for discussion once again.
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