Rory McIlroy’s “kickabout” may have deprived the British Open of having the world number one defend his title, but the potential storylines next week at St Andrews are still strong, starting with golf’s new golden boy Jordan Spieth.
The 21-year-old Texan has dominated the sport during the first half of this year, becoming the second-youngest winner of the Masters after Tiger Woods in April and last month becoming the youngest winner of the US Open since Bobby Jones in 1923.
That brings him to St Andrews with a shot at becoming just the second man – after Ben Hogan in 1953 – to win the first three majors of the year, setting up the mouthwatering prospect of him pulling off the Grand Slam at the PGA Championship next month.
Spieth raised a few eyebrows by electing not to travel to Scotland early to acquaint himself better with links golf. He has only ever played St Andrews once, four years ago ahead of a Walker Cup match in Aberdeen.
Instead, he stayed at home to compete in the relatively low-key John Deere Classic in Illinois for which he has a special affection, having won his first pro tournament there two years ago as a teenager.
His decision was vindicated after a 10-under 61 in the third round, the best round of his US PGA Tour career, set up his second victory in the event via a play-off on Sunday and continued his incredible run of 2015 success.
He made it clear that he had no regrets about opting to stay in the United States and travel to Scotland only on Monday.
“I committed to this event well ahead of time, never really crossed my mind to drop out,” he said.
“I felt like I’ve played well in the Open Championship the last couple years having played at the John Deere right before and competed.
“When I get over there, whether I play well or don’t play well has nothing to do with what I did the week before.
– High energy Spieth –
“I will certainly have enough energy. I will certainly have enough rest, and I will be as prepared as can be, as I am for any other event, by the time I tee it up at St Andrews. I’m not worried about any of that.”
Spieth will be taking part in just his third Open having tied for 44th place at Muirfield two years ago and tied for 36th last year at Hoylake.
But his superb touch and finesse on and around the greens allied to his excellent course management skills make him a natural for links golf courses where imaginative shot-making is key.
What he won’t be able to do at St Andrews, much to the dismay of the golfing world, is go up against McIlroy, with the two holding all four of golf’s major titles and touted to be embarking on a rivalry that will fire up golf over the next two decades.
The 26-year-old Northern Irishman, winner of the Open and PGA Championship last year, sustained a bad ankle injury in a football “kickabout” with some friends, ruling him out of St Andrews and possibly also Whistling Straits, host venue for the PGA Championship.
– Woods seeks inspiration –
Spieth, though, said that with or without McIlroy, for him the challenge remains the same.
For Tiger Woods, the last golfer prior to Spieth to win the Masters and the US Open in the same year in 2002, the challenge of St Andrews is on an altogether different plane.
Unlike Spieth he knows the Old Course like the back of his hand, having won his first Open title there by eight strokes in 2000 and then again, by five strokes, in 2005.
It’s his favourite course anywhere and if there is one place that can inspire him to revive his flagging fortunes – alongside Augusta National – it is St Andrews.
The former world number one is currently ranked 226th after a nightmare season featuring career-worst scores on the PGA Tour and in the US Open and a best finish of tied 17th in the Masters.
However, the 14-time major winner did card three sub-par rounds to finish joint 32nd in the Greenbrier Classic in his last start, including a bogey-free closing 67.
“I feel good,” the 39-year-old said on Saturday after getting reacquainted with the Old Course at St Andrews.
“Sunday at Greenbrier is probably the best I hit it in two years. That was fun. It sounds crazy when I told everyone at Greenbrier that I felt close, after the scores I shot at the Memorial (85) and the US Open (80).
“I put it together at Greenbrier and hit it really good. (Instructor) Chris (Como) told me it was the first time I led the field in proximity to the hole with my iron game.”
Spieth and Woods apart, the Open has numerous sub-plots worth keeping an eye on.
Phil Mickelson will seek a second Open crown in Scotland after his Muirfield triumph of two years ago, Louis Oosthuizen will try to resurrect his form of five years ago when he won by seven strokes at St Andrews and Justin Rose will spearhead the quest for a first English winner since Nick Faldo in 1992.
Faldo will play the Open for the last time as will five-time Open champion Tom Watson. – Agence France-Presse