Hard by the Irish Sea, it was as if Jordan Spieth were giving away the 2017 British Open the way he had given away a Masters once to Rae's Creek, in April of 2016. Spieth had started Sunday with a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar, but by the time the 13th hole was over, he would have taken a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie. He would finally have to make an eight-foot putt for bogey. When Jordan Spieth walked off the 13th green, after the playing of that hole seemed to have taken about one hour, after the most dramatic bogey of his career, he was one stroke behind Kuchar.
But what no one could have known in that moment was that the putt on 13, the one that kept him away from a double and kept him within a shot of Kuchar, was the beginning of the most remarkable four-hole stretch in the history of major championship golf, four holes that felt like the back nine Jack Nicklaus played at Augusta in 1986, when the 46-year-old Nicklaus shot 30 coming home and nearly shot 29 and won the last of his 18 major championships.
"A dream come true," Spieth would say when he had the Claret Jug in his hands.
Dream day for him. Dream finish. What we saw on his back nine at Royal Birkdale on Sunday was a great golfer gathering himself like a great fighter, one who had somehow put himself on the ropes. After 13 holes of the final round, he was four-over par. And here is what happened next:
Jordan Spieth nearly made a hole-in-one on the par-three 14. Made the short putt for birdie. He and Kuchar were tied again at eight-under. The six-iron he hit on the 201-yard hole wasn't Nicklaus' one-iron that hit the pin on the par-three 17th at Pebble Beach in the 1972 U.S. Open, one of the most famous golf shots ever hit. But in the moment, it was close enough for Spieth.
Then he eagled the 15th -- before Kuchar made birdie -- with a 40-foot putt that went into the cup as if Spieth had walked up and dropped it in there.
At this point he looked at his caddie, Michael Greller, almost a deadpanned expression on his face, and said, "Go get that." He reminded you of Tom Watson pointing at his caddie, Bruce Edwards, at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, when Watson chipped in from some junk near the green.
When Watson pointed at Edwards that day, he said, "I told you," because he had told Edwards before the shot that he was going to hole it.
"Go get that," Spieth said to Greller. As he was about to go get the Claret Jug. As he was making sure this wasn't Rae's Creek, wasn't the back nine of Augusta that day in 2016; that it wasn't the last round at St. Andrews when he was trying to win the 2015 British Open, which would have put him three-quarters of the way to the Grand Slam.
This time it was different for 23-year-old Jordan Spieth. This was a particular sort of genius and one you get from great athletes when they somehow find their very best after playing their worst. But now Spieth, who had hit his drive on No. 13 nearly 100 yards right, was playing the best golf of his life at Royal Birkdale.
Birdie. Eagle. Birdie.
Still not done.
Now he and Kuchar came to the par-five 17th hole at Birkdale. Both of them hit errant drives. Both of them had to lay up short of the green. Kuchar pitched past the hole, made his birdie putt. Match play golf all the way now. But Spieth -- who'd somehow had the presence and poise to stop his swing and walk away from his own pitch when he was distracted by a photographer -- was closer. In match play, you throw your biggest punch when you roll in a big putt on top of the one that your opponent just made. Spieth did that now with his own shorter birdie putt.
Now he had played his last four holes at the British Open in five-under. Somehow, after having been four-over for the final round, he was one-under. One hole left to play. For this last stretch of holes, he reminded you of Roger Federer gathering himself in the fifth set of the final of the Australian Open, when he was the one on the ropes, down 1-3 to Rafael Nadal. Then it was Federer's genius and toughness on display as he ran the table on Nadal. On the day when Federer won his 18th major, the same number Nicklaus won in golf.
"Is Jordan Spieth something else?" Nicklaus tweeted on Sunday afternoon.
The kid was something to see. The golf he played from the 13th green on, when a bogey putt was as important as anything that would follow, was something to see, and something for the ages, despite his own ridiculously young age. Jordan Spieth will win more majors. But he will never be more of a champion than he was on the back nine at Royal Birkdale on Sunday.
"More difficult than it even looked," Spieth said later.
He hit an iron from the 18th tee, tired by then of hitting drivers off the continent. Then he put his second shot on the green. Not looking for one more birdie now. Just looking for a par and daring Kuchar to make birdie on a hard finishing hole. Kuchar plugged his second shot in a greenside bunker. The rest of it just felt like bookkeeping. After Nicklaus had made his own last birdie on No. 17 at Augusta in 1986, he had a long putt on 18 that would have given him 29 on the back nine. Jack left it just short. There was still some waiting for him to do that day. But he made one more run at the hole. So did Spieth on 18 at Birkdale, just rolling one last long putt past the hole.
He would shoot 69 on this day. It felt like a 59 because of the way he finished. Now he has won the first three legs of a Grand Slam before the age of 24 the way Nicklaus did. Now, on the day when he was up against it the way he was, he had played the greatest four-hole stretch in major championship golf history.
"The greatest finish I have seen in championship golf," Johnny Miller, who once shot a Sunday 63 at Oakmont to win the U.S. Open, said.
It was. There have been other finishes to remember in golf, on Sundays like this. We will always talk about Jack at the Masters. But there has never been a better finish than this. Spieth didn't make a double at 13. He made that putt. And for the next hour or so, he played golf as well as any champion has ever played it in the last round of a major. Now he has his own famous back nine. And a famous line to go with it. Go get that.