ST ANDREWS, Scotland (Reuters) - When American Jordan Spieth sent his ball across the 16th green at St Andrews on Monday and seconds later watched it vanish into the hole 40 feet away it seemed the golfing Gods were smiling on him.
As the challengers for the 144th British Open faltered one by one the history-seeking Texan moved level with leaders Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman and he could almost smell the polish on the old Claret Jug.
However, even this remarkably talented 21-year-old, with strokes of genius and tungsten nerves, proved human after all as the infamous Road Hole claimed another victim.
Spieth played three superb shots to give himself a regulation six-foot putt for the par that would have sent him down the far more accommodating 18th needing a birdie to become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to land the year’s first three majors.
But the nerveless putting that propelled him to the Masters and the U.S. Open this year, failed him as the ball rolled wide.
All was not lost as a birdie at the last would have at least earned him a playoff -- and you imagine he would have won it, such is the aura he has acquired in his short career.
However, he sent his tee shot wide left and his though his approach initially seemed to have salvaged his chances, the ball spun wickedly backwards into the Valley of Sin.
His birdie attempt, up the slope, was bold and true, but the ball refused to drop and as groans filled the dank air. Spieth puffed out his cheeks and trudged off looking disconsolate.
He is in good company though.
Of the five players to win the year’s first two majors, only Hogan then triumphed at the British Open, at Carnoustie in 1953.
Fellow Americans Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods all fell at the third hurdle when trying to attempt the Holy Grail of the calendar slam -- Woods failing in 2002.
“I just wish I’d given myself a little better opportunity,” Spieth, who would have become the youngest ever world number one had he won, said.
Just as he demonstrated at the ninth, though, when he made birdie after a calamitous three-putt double bogey on the eighth that would have pole-axed many more grizzled players, Spieth does not stay down for long.
“I don’t know how many guys have done three majors in a year,” he said. “I‘m sure there’s only been a few, I know Tiger has done it. So that would be the next goal as far as the history goes. Sights set on the PGA Championship.”
Woods won his three in 2000 -- including the British Open at St Andrews -- and the only other man to secure a hat-trick was Ben Hogan in 1953.
While Spieth was disappointed with the missed putt on the 17th -- “I didn’t hit it very solid” he said -- it was the par-three eighth hole, tucked away alongside the River Eden, where his shot at history ebbed away.
His tee shot into wind and driving rain fell short. “Oh Jordan, C‘mon man!!” he scolded.
But worse followed as he took four putts from the front of the green to get down.
“When you look up from the ball and you’re getting pelted in the face, it’s a hard shot,” he said. “I just tried to sling one in there and I left it 40 yards from the pin. It’s just a no-brainer. If you make bogey, you’re still in it. If you make double bogey, it’s a very difficult climb.”
He did climb back though, with a birdie at the 10th and then five solid pars before his wonder putt at the 16th seemed to light the touchpaper for something special.
Instead stood by the 18th and watched Zach Johnson win a playoff. “That’s a hell of a major,” Spieth said.
It was not just Johnson fans celebrating either as Spieth’s failure saved bookmakers millions.
“Spieth would have been a shocker so anyone else was a result,” said Rupert Adams, spokesman for William Hill, who already make the 21-year-old 5-1 for the US PGA.
“That said, we fully expect Jordan Spieth to be the scourge of bookmakers for many years to come.”
Reporting editing by Mitch Phillips