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OPINION: Spieth’s Confidence Cresting At Birkdale

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth opened with a 65 at Royal Birkdale, chewing the same stick of gum all the way. (Photo Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Boyers)

SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND | Jordan Spieth knows a good thing when he sees it.

Or chews it.   

Two weeks ago, Spieth was on vacation in Cabo San Lucas with friends and when they left, he hung around a little longer and spent the Fourth of July with Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Fred Couples and Russell Wilson, to drop a few gold-plated names.

Spieth figured he might learn a thing or two from those guys, who made careers out of trophy and medal presentations.

“I looked around the room there and, wow, this is cool. This is cool, these guys, they include me and ask about what I’m doing, and these are guys I’ve looked up to my entire life. And it kind of gives you a nice boost of confidence, if I needed an even bigger head,” Spieth said.

Having caught a bit of a break Thursday morning with a tee time that came after the chill, the rain and even a bit of the wind had subsided at Royal Birkdale, Spieth was offered a piece of mint-flavored gum by his swing coach and confidant Cameron McCormick. Somewhere along the line, Spieth remembered hearing mint can have a calming effect on nerves and chewing gum had worked for Payne Stewart so Spieth put his jaws to work.

He thought about spitting out his gum but he was 1 under through two holes and golfers are loathe to change when something is working. By the time Spieth signed for a 5-under-par 65 early Thursday afternoon, he was still chewing the same stick of gum.

“It’s probably about time for a new piece,” Spieth said.

There was something deeply familiar about the way Spieth went around Birkdale in the first round, missing just three greens. On a course that plays between the dunes and is speckled with fairway bunkers that promise bogeys or worse, Spieth had a stress-free day.

It wasn’t his finest round in a major championship – that 64 Spieth started the 2015 Masters with still glitters with a rare sparkle – but he put it among the handful of best rounds he has had in the game’s biggest events. A brilliant player on any stage, Spieth has the rare gift of growing with his surroundings. The more important the event, the more likely it seems Spieth will be a leading character in the plotline.

“I could name a few rounds in my life that I would say everything was on,” Spieth said. “I still missed tee shots (Thursday), a couple more than I really wanted to. And I had a couple of putts that were within 10, 12 feet that missed. But I’m pretty much saying it was really, really solid all around.”

Spieth won his last start – remember his wedge-tossing reaction when he holed a bunker shot to win the Travelers Championship late last month? – and arrived on the western edge of England rested and ready.

The funny thing about Spieth is that despite winning twice on the PGA Tour this season there was a quiet sense, at least until his win at Hartford, that his season had been flat by his standards. Statistically, Spieth said, his ballstriking has been better than his brilliant 2015 season but he hasn’t holed putts, especially those in the 20-foot range. That has begun to change.

Henrik Stenson, who was paired with Spieth on Thursday, has seen enough of the Texan at his best to be impressed by what he saw in the opening round at Birkdale.

“I played with him in ’15 when he won his green jacket, and he was rolling it superbly that week, and I don’t think it was that far behind today. He made a lot of good putts out there,” said Stenson, who called his opening 69 “a good day’s work.”

Though this is just his fifth Open Championship, Spieth learned early that it’s critical to take advantage of good weather breaks when they arrive. Perhaps more than any other event, the Open Championship can be determined by the luck of the draw. Catch good weather on your side of the draw the first two days and it can make the difference in having a chance to win and not having a chance to play the weekend.

RELATED STORY: Spieth Explains Importance Of Favorable Draw At Open

Spieth seized his opportunity in the first round as the conditions gradually improved. He’s not likely to be so fortunate with the weather on Friday when the forecast, particularly in the afternoon when he will play, calls for big wind and potentially heavy rain. The longer this championship goes, the better Spieth’s opening 65 may look.

“It could be a lot more significant in three days’ time than I would consider it right now,” he said.

It looked like not-so-old times on Thursday.

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