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Spieth feeling comfortable playing with lead at majors

SOUTHPORT, England -- Jordan Spieth stood dead center in the middle of Royal Birkdale's 18th fairway Saturday afternoon, some 40 yards ahead of Matt Kuchar. Spieth watched his playing partner take aim at the flagstick and nearly hole his approach for eagle. Spieth then hit his own shot, one he figured was destined for the bunker but instead hung on the right edge of the green.

As they walked together down the fairway, serenaded by shouts of their names and raucous applause, Kuchar turned to Spieth and said, "This is pretty cool."

Jordan Spieth's birdie on the 18th hole Saturday, which gave him a 3-shot lead, might end up being the difference-maker when it comes down to the wire Sunday at The Open. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
They soaked it in, two competitors, yes, but two buddies enjoying their roles in the scene.

Until Spieth stole that scene for himself.

Leading by 2, from 20 feet above the hole, Spieth rolled in his birdie attempt. Kuchar missed his from just a few feet away. Instead of a potential 1-shot lead entering Sunday's final round of The Open, Spieth had solidified a 3-stroke advantage.

It was exactly the kind of momentum shift that wins major championships.

"I thought, 'This is where I normally capitalize and I kind of make a scrappy birdie,'" Spieth later explained. "It was a good feeling."

It's a feeling to which he's become quite accustomed.

Spieth has led a tournament after each of the past seven rounds he's played. He has converted two of his previous four 54-hole leads at majors. He has never failed to convert a multiple-shot lead going into the final round of a major. And here's the kicker: He has led after 14 major championship rounds since the beginning of 2013.

No other player has done that more than half as much during this span, which leads to a few irrefutable facts. Spieth is really good at getting into the lead, he's really good at holding the lead, and he's really good at converting the lead into victory.

"It's a different feeling and one that's harder to sleep with than the other way around, because you feel like you've got to almost change the way you do things," he explained. "You control your own destiny, and sometimes that can be a big thing on your mind, versus I need help and I'll just go out there and try to play well."

Playing with the lead can be more difficult than it seems. The advantage of being a few strokes better than the competition can easily be negated by the additional pressure of a proverbial spotlight.

The target always focuses on the prey, not the hunters.

So it stands to reason that playing as a front-runner is a learned trait. This puzzle is never fully solved, but each experience offers greater clues for the next one. Jack Nicklaus figured this out early in his career; so, too, did Tiger Woods.

Spieth, who turns 24 on Thursday, already owns a been-there, done-that which can rival even the most seasoned major championship contenders. Three years ago, he led the Masters after 54 holes, only to be outlasted by Bubba Watson. The next year, he converted Saturday night leads at both the Masters and U.S. Open, claiming his first two major titles.

Then there's last year's Masters -- the one that still stings, the one still freshest in most minds. Spieth led by 5 going into Sunday's back nine, only to bogey the next two holes, and then quadruple-bogey the 12th, rinsing his pain in Rae's Creek.

"I think I'm in a position where it can be very advantageous, just everything I've gone through, the good, the bad, and everything in the middle," he explained of that defeat. "I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling."

Closing out a major championship is often less about technical acumen, strategic game plans or physical abilities. At this point in the proceedings, it becomes a mental pursuit, the capacity to stiff-arm the field and keep your opponents at arm's length.

Nicklaus and Woods didn't win so many majors only because they were the best players. They won because they understood the concept of playing keep-away with the lead.

Spieth isn't at that level yet, but he might be getting there. Experience begets more experience, those past adventures only steeling him for others.

"I've been through this experience a lot," he said, sounding like a player twice his age.

He's right, though. He knows all of this. He's played from this position before. He's won some and lost some, but each time he's gleaned more knowledge about how to approach the next one.

That time will come Sunday afternoon.

Source: http://www.espn.com/golf/theopen17/story/_/id/20129738/golf-open-jordan-spieth-feeling-comfortable-playing-lead-majors

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