What Jordan Spieth did on Sunday at Royal Birkdale is now the stuff, of instant legend. Move over Seve, with your “birdie from the car park” at the Open. Jordan’s bogey from the equipment trailers, will be talked about for years. This wasn’t just a case of getting out of jail from one bad swing. Spieth had been leaking oil all day long, and right from the start. Crooked drives. Chunked iron shots. Yanked putts. Anyone who has ever played golf knows the feeling of when “the wheels come off.” When that happens, it takes an incomprehensible level of focus and mental toughness to hold it together and not collapse. Only the rarest of elite players can do what Spieth did: stare down humiliation, then mount it, and ride to victory.
I will let you readers slot Spieth’s amazing comeback from the brink amongst my top-9 list of “Most Mentally Tough Victories in Championship Golf History.” Not every one of these moments involved a player recovering a car that was skidding over the cliff. But all of them required a sort of “dig down deep” and see what’s in there, kind of effort. Something tells, me, yesterday’s amazing finish is no lower than 4th.
1- 2008 – US Open – Torrey Pines – Tiger Woods playing with a torn ligament in his knee and a hairline fracture, beats Rocco Mediate in an 18 hole Monday playoff that still had to go to sudden death. Woods makes numerous incredible shots, despite buckling at times in pain, chipping in from off the green, and then ultimately curling in a birdie putt on 18 in regulation punctuated by Dan Hicks’ famous call: “Expect anything different?”
2 – 2016 – US Open – Oakmont – Dustin Johnson, already victim to one dodgy rules violation at a major, is informed he “may” have committed a penalty when his ball moves slightly while on the putting green on the front nine. Not even knowing what score he might need to win the golf tournament, Johnson calmly plays the final 6 holes as if nothing mattered. He dominates the brutish 18th hole with a massive drive and a 7-iron from 191 yards to 4 feet, making the birdie. He’s later assessed a penalty, but it doesn’t matter.
3 – 1999 – Ryder Cup – Brookline – Justin Leonard is getting buried by Jose Maria Olazabal in Sunday singles, as Johnny Miller cackles on TV that he should have stayed home in bed. Down four holes with just 7 to play, Leonard starts making bombs after Davis Love III arrives to cheer him on, culminating with the historic cross-country snake on #17 to clinch the Cup.
4a-b-c – Tiger Woods Wins U.S. Amateur: 1994, 1995, 1996
a -1994 at Sawgrass, he was down 5 to Trip Kuehne with 12 to play before mounting a furious rally. It culminated with hitting a wedge right of the pin on the narrow ledge on the 17th green. In a straw hat, shorts, and a broad-striped peach and white shirt, Tiger delivered a nuclear fist pump after draining the 15 footer for birdie from the fringe. The world now knows about Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.
b -1995 at Newport CC: Down 2 to Pennsylvania luxury car deal Buddy Marruci after 19 holes, Tiger closes him out on 18 with a knockdown 8-iron to a foot. That night, Earl Woods boasts to the media over champagne: “Before it’s all over, my son will win 14 Majors.” It’s maybe the most prophetic boast in sports history.
c- 1996 at Pumpkin Ridge: Woods falls down 5 through 9 holes in the final to 19 year old Florida Gator Steve Scott. Down 5 with 16 holes to play Woods mounts a furious rally to prevail on 2nd hole of sudden death. He turns pro immediately, dunks an ace at his first pro tournament in Milwaukee, then wins in Las Vegas before the year is out to secure his status on Tour.
5 – 1984 – US Open – Winged Foot – Fuzzy Zoeller watches Greg Norman drain a snake on the 18th green – presumably for birdie to clinch the Open. Zoeller, waiting in the fairway waves his white towel, in mock surrender. However, the putt was only for par, and after Zoeller makes a par of his own to force a playoff, he dusts Norman easily in a Monday playoff, shooting 67.
6 – 2015 – US Open – Chambers Bay – Jordan Spieth double-bogeys the par-3 17th hole with a 3-putt on the worst putting surfaces in major championship history. All week players had complained about the rock hard, lumpy, mostly-dead poa-annua greens, both privately, and in public. Spieth, however, figured out a way to play them, and bounced back with a birdie on 18 and then watched Dustin Johnson three-putt from 12 feet to hand him the trophy.
7 – 1986 – Masters – Jack Nicklaus – Considered washed up at 46, the Golden Bear moves into contention late on Sunday afternoon. With his son Jackie on the bag, Nicklaus is nearly overwhelmed with emotion as the galleries cheer him every step of the way. Realizing he could win, Nicklaus digs deep and hits the 4-iron of his career into #15 for eagle, a lazer-like 6-iron to 4 feet at 17 for birdie, and then makes the most iconic putt in modern golf history at #17.
8 – 2007 – British Open – Carnoustie – Padraig Harrington squanders a one-shot lead on the treacherous 18th hole by hitting not one, but two shots into the “Barry Burn”. He later admitted he wished at that moment the ground would “open up, and swallow him whole” he was so devastated. He manages to get up and down for a double bogey, however, and then watches Sergio Garcia make bogey to force a playoff. Harrington prevails in the 3 hole playoff.
9 – 2002 – PGA Championship – Rich Beem – A tour nobody makes an eagle on #11 and a 35 foot bomb for birdie on #16 to keep a charging Tiger Woods in his dominant prime. Woods would finish with 4-birdies-in-a-row, but it was not enough. Beem never flinched from the roars that were exploding just behind him. He would also, never win again on the PGA Tour.