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Spieth throws a dramatic bunker shot at Berger, wins Travelers playoff

CROMWELL, Conn., June 25 - Jordan Spieth is the wunderkind who lacks pop and power, but has precision, polish and poise under pressure—minus the 12th hole at the 2016 Masters—but he tends to get punchy and has to give himself pep talks. He’s proving to be the People’s choice with the pizzazz that comes from someone with putting prowess. And in winning his 10th PGA Tour victory Sunday, he’s a performer with pinpoint timing, as he was in his first victory in the John Deere Classic in 2013.

The water-logged 17th hole with the 15th and "15th 1/2" holes beyond.

The water-logged 17th hole with the 15th and "15th 1/2" holes beyond.

Spieth, who will be 24 on July 27, was just the third player to go wire-to-wire at The Travelers Championship, capped by a dramatic bunker holeout for birdie on the par-4 18th hole to beat Daniel Berger in a sudden-death playoff. Spieth led by one shot after a 63 on Thursday, then maintained the one-shot edge after rounds of 69 and 66. Based on his strategy playing TPC River Highlands, he would have liked a 66 on Sunday, but he was on pace for 68 after shooting one-under on the front. He was at 13 under, two up on Boo Weekley, with Danny Lee at 10 under and Berger nine.

Spieth missed makable birdie putts on 10 and 11, then bogeyed 12 after a wayward tee shot and parred 13. He still led by two shots over Weekley, Lee, Hoffman and Berger at 10 under. After a sloppy bogey on 14 dropped him to 11 under, he was tied with Berger and one up on Weekley.

Spieth surprised himself on 15, rolling in a birdie putt he thought he’d missed, and after a par on 16 he led by one. Berger birdied 17 to get to 12 under and both players played 18 while tied at 12 under. Each made par dramatically with up-and-down efforts from greenside bunkers, Spieth spectacularly nearly holed out from the same bunker he would be in on the playoff. He finished with an even-par 70 and was caught by Berger’s 67.

Playing the par-4 18th again to start the playoff, each drove poorly, leaving Spieth to hit a 5-iron in the front-right bunker and Berger hitting well out of thick rough and leaving him an across-the-green putt in the left fringe.

Playing first, Spieth blasted his ball short of the hole and watched it roll like a putt with speed to hit the flagstick dead center and fall in for a 3. Spieth raced out of the bunker and did a body bump with caddie Michael Greller, then quieted the frenzied record crowd for Berger’s effort to tie him. For a moment it looked like Berger’s ball was on line to match Spieth’s heroics, but it sped by on the high side.

"I felt comfortable on the bunker shot,” Spieth said. “I felt more comfortable in the bunker than I did from four feet. I was in there in regulation, knew it was the place to be. So my approach shot I thought that if it were not going to carry, that bunker's not bad. If it happens to carry on to the green, great. From 225 into this hole I was happy with where it was. I was just trying to get it up there somewhere around the hole.

“For it to actually kind of spin in, I went and jumped up and saw it kind of spinning towards the middle of the hole and I'm like, no way. I'm looking at it like there's no way. It hit and went in, and I lost my mind.

“Obviously, that was one for the ages,” Spieth added. “So I don't know if I'll ever have a moment like that again. That was -- if I was in Berger's shoes, I'd be cursing Jordan Spieth right now for the break off the tee and then holing a 30-yard bunker shot. That's a lot of walk. But I took advantage of the good breaks and happy to come out on top. We played great. The putter let me down today, but all in all this is a huge victory for us in the middle of the season as we go into this second half of the major season.”

The victory makes Spieth the second youngest to 10 victories in tour history, behind Tiger Woods but ahead of Jack Nicklaus. Spieth was not going down that comparison path. “I think it's awesome. I'm hesitant and will speak out adamantly about not comparing myself to anybody else,” he said. “I think that's unfair. I don't think anybody will do what Tiger did for the game. But it's really cool to be out here at my age, to experience what we're able to experience, play golf for a living. That's a dream come true for me.

“I've got all my buddies out here. I grew up playing golf with Berger back to when we were 14, 15 years old, and to be in a playoff with him out here is pretty cool. And I hope that there are teenagers out there listening that they're able to look across from them on the tee box at junior golf events and recognize that they can be out here doing what we just did. It is really cool.”

But, boy, I mean, I really wish that I didn't make it exciting. The goal was boring golf. Play the way we played the first couple holes. Make a bunch of pars, maybe slip in another birdie or two, and cruise in, hit the green and two putt. Walk off. Day's work is done. I still wish I did it that way, but the way that it happened, sometimes you need a little fireworks. Next time I'll still be going for the boring golf route. That will be the goal."

Berger, who turned 24 in April and is shaping up to be a Spieth rival on tour, knew that a great shot beat him. “I played great today. I played the playoff hole great,” he said. “He hit an unbelievable bunker shot, and Jordan does Jordan things. So there's not really much you can say. I'm obviously disappointed, but happy to be in the position I was in today.”

Berger has won the last two FedEx St. Jude Classic, including earlier this month. The sensation of winning so recently helped him: “I knew I could do it. I knew I needed to hit a bunch of good shots and I did. But you can't do anything about that. It's incredible.”

Just as Berger was left speechless, Spieth left fans speechless but not voiceless. The roar compared with cheers he's heard at Augusta National's 16th, he said. Whether the roars are Tiger-like is an analysis for another time. For now, Jordan Spieth is doing the best he can to make the absence of Woods as exciting as possible.


Cliff Schrock