HAVEN, Wis. — The man is confident, and he has every right to be. This has been Jordan Spieth’s year, his breakthrough, his star-turn. He won the Masters in record-breaking fashion, won the U.S. Open and fell one shot short in the British Open.
And now, he has a wonderful chance to take the final major of 2015, the PGA Championship. Three out of four in a calendar year is a feat accomplished only by the immortal Ben Hogan in 1953 and prime Tiger Woods in 2000. A win Sunday would also make Spieth the only golfer in history to win all three majors on U.S. soil in one year, as Kieran Clark of Golfshake noted:
One round to go in the 79th PGA Championship. One dramatic round on Whistling Straits, a course built by man, not nature, for thrills and low scores, where the putts drop and expectations rise.
Spieth is two shots back after 54 holes, two behind Jason Day, who has been there but not quite done that—he has had chances to win the Masters and both Opens, but he couldn’t finish.
After a 65 in Saturday’s third round, including a back nine of 30—composed of six birdies over the last eight holes, 11 through 18—Spieth sounded so self-assured.
“On the back nine, it was nice to get into the zone,” said Spieth.
"The zone," that magical territory every athlete and sportsman seeks to enter—when every swing of a baseball bat sends a ball into the seats, every jump shot swishes through the net and every golf shot, especially every putt, goes exactly where it’s supposed to.
Spieth's journey through the zone on Saturday seemed all too familiar, as he's been doing it all year.
The Masters is a putting contest; the U.S. Open is a mental battle, with narrow fairways and long rough; the British Open is a test against the elements, and was it ever last month at St. Andrews. But the PGA is where the pros can let it rip. There is room to drive the ball and room to make a move.
Phil Mickelson had nine birdies Saturday, a record for a major. Impressive, especially for a 45-year-old who’s been showing his age. Whistling Straits is kind and beckoning.
“The greens have been receptive,” Mickelson said. “The course is in pristine shape.”
So is Spieth’s game. He’s progressed each round, shooting 72-67-65 for a 13-under 203. On Saturday, he didn’t have a bogey. His short game, the putting and chipping, were as spectacular as always, and even a few errant tee shots were quickly rectified.
“I was impatient on the front nine,” Spieth said. “I felt like I was playing some solid golf, and I was one under through 10. I just wasn’t scoring. My score did not reflect the way I was playing, which has been a little bit of the story this week, minus two stretches of nine holes.”
One of which was on his blistering back nine Saturday.
“Once the [birdie] on 11 went down, even though it was a simple up and down [on a 563-yard par five], at least I saw another birdie go," he said. "The one at 12 was nice. And we’re off to the races. The holes started to look bigger.”
And the 22-year-old Spieth began to look like the champion he is. We can rue that quadruple bogey at St. Andrews and then the bogey on No. 17, which kept him—and also kept us—from that improbable Grand Slam. But Spieth is thinking about what is ahead, not what’s behind.
Spieth was four shots back early on Saturday. He told caddy Michael Greller at the turn, “We got birdie opportunities on this side. Let’s try to get to three [for the round] to get to 10 under. I thought the lead would be around 13. So that was my goal. I knew that we could.”
He was off a bit in his reckoning, not his game. Two shots back of Day heading into the final round, he's in perfect position. He’s prepared. He’s patient. And most importantly, he's been here before.
“I think it’s something that me and Michael learned from past major championship weekends," he said. "I wasn’t thinking as much on Thursday as I was thinking about how in the tournaments, the majors, that we’ve won, the putts have fallen on the weekend just strictly by letting it happen.
“Giving yourself opportunities, believing it will fall, being stubborn on the greens. If tomorrow I can limit the mistakes and hit the fairways like we did today, we’ll be in really good shape.”
Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.