CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Kevin Chappell has one PGA Tour victory in 212 career starts. On Sunday, he has a chance to beat Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to win the British Open. Doesn’t that excite you?
I didn’t think so.
Golf is the rare sport where fans root against the underdog, and that has never been truer than this weekend. Face it: Unless you are a relative of one of the other players on the leaderboard, you want to see Spieth battle it out with Woods or McIlroy. Even Spieth sounds like he wants that. He talked Saturday night about how he always wanted to battle it out with Woods—as a kid in Texas, he imagined it would happen at Augusta National, but tomorrow at Carnoustie will do just fine.
“I saw he played pretty well today,” Spieth said of Woods’ five-under 66. “I don’t know what he finished at. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of scoreboard watching.”
Spieth said it, of course, in his usual Spiethian way: matter-of-factly, with no hint at all that he is worried about having Woods’s foot on his throat. Spieth does not seem capable of such worries. He blew away the field at the Masters when he was 21, followed it up with a U.S. Open win two months later, won the British Open last year and has two qualities that can’t be quantified but are always present. One is that he has the answers. The other is that he knows it.
As he walked to the tee at the 396-yard first hole Saturday, Spieth told swing coach Cameron McCormick, “How about I just send it on No. 1?” He knew the course was vulnerable, and he was thinking about driver. He drove the green and lipped in an eagle putt on his way to a bogey-free 65.
Yes, scores were low Saturday, but not all scores. Rickie Fowler hit his drive out of bounds on the 6th hole, took a triple-bogey 8 and fell from three shots off the lead to eight back with a 73. The day when Fowler finally wins his major will come eventually, but it won’t be this weekend. McIlroy shot a one-under 70, but he went from one stroke ahead of Spieth to four strokes back. Spieth is now tied with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner for the lead at nine under.
And so here they are, your final groups at the 2018 British Open … everybody within four shots of the lead:
Five under: Zach Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood
They need help, sure. But they are more than capable of capitalizing should they get it. Johnson is a two-time major champion, including the 2015 Open at St. Andrews, who thrives in difficult conditions. Fleetwood has a pair of 63s to lean on: his record-tying final round at this year’s U.S. Open and his course record here at last year’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. It would not be surprising if either of these guys posts a 64 and makes the leaders beat them.
Five-under: Rory McIlroy and Matt Kuchar
McIlroy is going to wake up, see Spieth’s name on top of the leaderboard and know he should be right there with him. This will tick him off. He will fire away, likely pounding driver every chance he gets, hoping to shoot the round of his life.
Five under: Alex Noren and Webb Simpson
When we last saw Noren, he was exploring parts of the 18th hole that haven’t been seen in hundreds of years. Somehow, he saved bogey. Still, that doesn’t bode well for Sunday. Simpson, who won the Players Championship, would punctuate his I-don’t-need-no-stinkin-belly-putter comeback with a win here.
Five under: Tiger Woods and six-under Francesco Molinari
Do we need to hype this for you? Really?
Woods made it pretty clear Saturday that he wants to see some lousy scoring conditions Sunday. He said of the leaders: “If they happen to get to double digits, I’m still only five back. That’s certainly doable with the weather that hopefully comes in tomorrow. If it doesn’t come in, then we know we have to shoot, six, seven, eight under par to have a chance.”
This is the first time in years that Woods will wake up knowing he is doing everything well. His putting touch has been excellent. He has not had those occasional bad misses that derailed him earlier in the year. He just needs to keep playing like this, drain the five- to 10-footers, and hope it’s enough.
Seven under: Kevin Chappell and nine under: Kevin Kisner
Kisner, who turned in a bogey-free 68 of his own on Saturday, is staying in a two-house complex with Spieth and a handful of other players this week: Zach Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jimmie Walker, Jason Dufner and Fowler. He can add to the house’s major total with a win, but he had that chance at last year’s PGA and he shot six over par for the weekend.
Nine under: Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele
Spieth has rare chance to be the old man in a major-championship pairing; Schauffele is three months younger. In most eras, there would be more buzz around Schauffele, a rising star who can win his first major at age 24. But this is not most eras. There are young stars all over the place.
Spieth is the biggest of them all. He has a chance to pull off a strange but amazing feat: back-to-back British Opens with zero victories in between them. He has struggled in a lot of ways, by his standards. But he still has the answers. And he knows it.