UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash.—We have now entered what one Tour caddie calls the “Big Boy golf” portion of the national championship.
If the first round was all about assessing Chambers Bay as a venue—and, to a lesser degree, Fox as a broadcast partner—Friday was when the players took center stage. The top of the leaderboard is pure class. Maybe the best player in the world, Jordan Spieth, is tied for the lead after a 67 left him at 5-under. Joining Spieth is the most confident player on Tour, Patrick Reed. One shot back is Dustin Johnson, the game’s greatest physical talent. Tied with Johnson is Branden Grace, perhaps golf’s most underrated player, who over the last three-and-a-half years has won nine times across the European and Sunshine tours.
Lurking in the top 10 is Henrik Stenson (1-under), the BPNTHWAM (best player never to have won a major) and Jason Day (2-under), a megatalent who made one of the grittiest bogeys in golf history, somehow completing his round after being felled by a vertigo attack on his 18th hole of the day. (Day is being monitored by doctors and at last report remains hopeful of teeing it up on Saturday.)
LEADERBOARD: Full Scores From Round 2 At Chambers Bay
Tiger Woods exited stage right after an inglorious 76 left him tied for 150th place, ahead of only three players. “On a golf course like this you get exposed and you have to be precise and dialed in,” Woods said. Not that he needed to, but he added, “And obviously I didn’t have that.”
Plenty of other players were also overmatched. Among the notables who missed the cut were defending champ Martin Kaymer (6-over), Bubba Watson (7-over), Miguel Angel Jimenez (6-over), Graeme McDowell (8-over) and Rickie Fowler (egad, 14-over). Semi-notables included Bill Haas (6-over) Hunter Mahan (7-over) and Victor Dubuisson (7-over).
Woods’s sad performance threw into sharp relief how seamlessly golf is transitioning into the post-Tiger era. The immensely popular Spieth, 21, is now halfway to being halfway to the Grand Slam. His friend and Ryder Cup partner Reed, 24, is the perfect foil, a passionate, polarizing player who makes for great TV. Johnson, 30, has long had a certain star quality, and his profile has only been enhanced by his high-profile love life and headline-making disappearance from the Tour. (GOLF.com reported that Johnson was suspended for six months for having failed three drug tests.)
Winning a U.S. Open would be a massive step forward for any of these players. For the baby-faced Spieth, it would confirm him as a player for the ages and send him to St. Andrews as one of the biggest stories in all of sports. Should Reed prevail, he would finally justify his brash proclamations of his talent and join Spieth as one of the game’s leading men. Johnson could become a crossover figure who brings the coveted casual fan to golf and, more than that, establishes himself as a dominant force going forward.
Spieth has to be considered the favorite heading into what will be a weekend that pushes all of the leaders to the breaking point—physically, mentally, perhaps spiritually. The Masters champ came out early on Friday and, starting on the 10th tee, blitzed Chambers Bay for four birdies in his first eight holes, stirring comparisons to his blowout in Augusta. A so-so drive and then a bad shot out of the fairway bunker on the 18th hole led to a deflating double bogey but Spieth bounced back with a birdie on the par-5 1st.
Asked about his trademark ability to grind, Spieth said, “It’s definitely something I’ve improved on.” He also cited his “patience and realization that this golf course is going to test your nerve and it’s how your rebound from [adversity].” Spieth did it again to close out his round. Having bogeyed the 7th hole and salvaging a sloppy par on the par-5 8th, he played a gorgeous cut 5-iron to eight feet on the par-3 9th.
It was on the walk down from that vertiginous tee box that his playing partner Day fell to the ground. Spieth turned into a protective papa bear, shooing away photographers and trying to comfort Day, who was eventually attended to by medics. After a long wait Spieth stepped up and drained his birdie putt, another testament to his focus.
There’s no doubting Johnson’s physical gifts but his ability to think clearly under pressure and grind out a score in tough conditions remains an open question. The last time he contended at the U.S. Open was Pebble Beach in 2010, when he had a signature Sunday blowup, shooting an 82 to give away a 3-stroke lead. That was followed by a couple of other notable screw-ups: a sliced 2-iron out-of-bounds down the stretch to hand the 2011 British Open to Darren Clarke and the infamous grounding-the-club penalty that cost Johnson a spot in a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship.
What has been largely forgotten in the hullaballoo about that penalty is that Johnson came to the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits with a one-shot lead but whipsawed his drive a mile off the fairway, hit a mediocre shot from the greenside bunker and missed a shortish putt he thought was to win the tournament.
In the wake of his absence Johnson has talked a lot about a new maturity and determination—both will be tested severely in the coming 36 holes. His finish to the second round was not encouraging, and Johnson bogeyed three of the final five holes to tumble out of the solo lead, finishing with a 71.
As for Reed, he followed Thursday’s 66 with a wildly entertaining 69 that featured five birdies, an eagle on the drivable par-4 12th hole and six bogeys. “It's going to come down to who can putt the best and who can know how far they're hitting their irons right now,” Reed said.
This is only his second U.S. Open so you can forgive his naiveté. The weekend at our national championship is only partially about executing golf shots. It is also an MRI of the souls of the contenders. Bobby Jones once said, “Nobody wins the Open, everyone else just loses it.”
The losing starts on Saturday.