Spieth Joins Elite Company, Halfway to Major History

Jordan Spieth examines his name on the U.S. Open Championship Trophy, etched into history shortly after his victory on Sunday. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
Jordan Spieth examines his name on the U.S. Open Championship Trophy, etched into history shortly after his victory on Sunday. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – In the realm of golf accomplishments, winning the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year is almost as rare as winning all four professional major championships in a career. That reflects both the feat itself and the players who have accomplished it.

With his dramatic victory at Chambers Bay, Jordan Spieth became only the sixth player to accomplish the former. Four of the others are icons, and all of them are Hall of Famers. To achieve what Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951 and 1953), Arnold Palmer (1960), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Tiger Woods (2002) did puts Spieth in select company. Only a slightly smaller club has accomplished the career Grand Slam: Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods.

“Those names are the greatest that have ever played the game, and I don’t consider myself there,” Spieth said. “But certainly I’m off to the right start in order to make an impact on the history of the game.”

That is an understatement. Spieth, 21, of Dallas, is the youngest winner of the U.S. Open since Bob Jones in 1923. He is the first since Sarazen in 1922 to win two majors before turning 22.

To give credit to another golf legend, one other player since the Masters began in 1934 won the first two majors of the year. In 1949, Sam Snead won at Augusta National and then triumphed at the PGA Championship, which was held that season in late May, prior to the U.S. Open. Snead nearly made it three in a row in the U.S. Open at Medinah, losing to Cary Middlecoff by one.

Hogan is the only player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year, pulling off the “Triple Crown” in 1953 in his only appearance in the British Open. He was not able to play in that year’s PGA Championship due to a scheduling conflict.

The British Open was not contested in 1941 due to World War II, denying Wood an opportunity had he chosen to play. However, Palmer and Nicklaus came tantalizingly close to winning a third major in succession.

In 1960, with the possibility of a modern Grand Slam being talked about widely for the first time, Palmer lost by a stroke to Kel Nagle in the British Open at St. Andrews. A dozen years later, it was Nicklaus’ turn at Muirfield. The Golden Bear, playing conservatively, trailed Lee Trevino by six strokes after 54 holes before an aggressive 66 in the final round. Nicklaus missed four putts of 15 feet or less on the final nine but still would have earned a spot in a playoff if not for Trevino’s chip-in for par on the 71st hole.

Woods didn’t come nearly as close at Muirfield when he had a chance after Masters and U.S. Open victories in 2002. He trailed by only two through 36 holes, but playing in some of the worst weather the Open has ever seen – a cold, windy, heavy rain – Woods shot an 81 in the third round to fall out of contention.  A closing 65 was too little, too late to resurrect Woods’ Grand Slam hopes.

Spieth will attempt to do what those greats couldn’t do at St. Andrews. He has played the Old Course once, with the USA Walker Cup Team in 2011 prior to the matches at Royal Aberdeen.

“I remember walking around the clubhouse. It's one of my favorite places in the world,” Spieth said. “I [saw] paintings of royalty playing golf, and it was dated 1460-something. I'm thinking, ‘Our country was discovered in 1492, and they were playing golf here before anyone even knew that the Americas existed.’ And that really amazed me and helped me realize exactly how special that place is.”

Fifty-five years after Palmer crossed the Atlantic looking to go 3-for-3 in majors, Spieth will look to make history at a place that boasts so much of it.

“There are certainly things that I can improve on from this week,” Spieth said. “I can strike the ball better than I did this week. I can get more positive. I can improve in all aspects of my game, I believe that. It's just about now looking to St. Andrews and everything prior. How are we going to best prepare for it and how are we going to fine-tune. It's just fine-tuning, it's nothing major.”

Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.