Jordan Spieth’s U.S. Open Victory Puts Him 2 Steps from History

June 23, 2015

Early on Sunday evening, after the lesser characters had finally exited the stage, the 115th U.S. Open became a two-man drama that doubled neatly as a morality play.

Jordan Spieth, America’s sweetheart, came to the 72nd hole having already won and lost the Open on the preceding two greens, or so it seemed. The Masters champ was chasing history in his own earnest way. In the final group behind him was bad boy Dustin Johnson, though because this is golf he’s not that bad. But things have always come a little too easily for Johnson—girls, golf, riches—and now he found himself in the hunt on the last nine of our national championship, which serves as a kind of MRI of the soul. Johnson had arrived at the 10th tee with a two-shot lead, thanks to a front nine of metronomic ball striking, but he shrank from the immensity of the opportunity, bogeying three of the next four holes to tumble out of the lead.

Spieth came to the 18th tee with his caddie, Michael Greller, in his ear, “shoving positive thoughts into my head” as the 21-year-old Spieth put it. He needed them. He had been tied for the lead on the 16th hole, when playing partner Branden Grace, an unsung South African, blew his tee shot in the vicinity of the railroad tracks along Puget Sound en route to a double bogey. Spieth poured in a 27-foot birdie putt with four feet of break, and just like that the lead was three. The ruthlessness of the putt, and the lusty celebration that followed, evoked Tiger Woods in his prime. “That was about as animated as I’ve been since maybe throwing a tantrum when I was 13 on the course,” Spieth said. “I thought that was the one.” But on the par-3 17th he made what could have been a reputation-altering double bogey, three-putting after a poor tee shot to fall back to four under.

The tee box of the 601-yard, par-5 18th hole was chaotic and claustrophobic. Spieth was surrounded by photographers with itchy trigger fingers, harried USGA officials aggressively whispering into walkie-talkies, and cops with mirrored sunglasses trying to contain the huge crowds that had been whipped into a frenzy by an epic back nine. As Spieth stood on the tee, assessing his options, he was enveloped by roars. Johnson had just stuffed his tee shot on 17, setting up the birdie that would tie him for the lead. Up ahead Louis Oosthuizen was making birdie to reach four under. That capped a back nine for the ages (29), but this story was never going to be about Oosthuizen.

That Spieth’s fate would be decided on the 18th hole was proof that the golf gods have a sense of humor. Chambers Bay, in University Place, Wash., is a neo-links on a grand scale, with huge, heaving greens and expansive teeing areas that allow for a wide variety in the setup. On Friday, the 18th had been shortened to a 514-yard par-4, and en route to making a double bogey, the ordinarily genteel Spieth was caught by TV mikes calling it “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life,” owing to an extremely tight landing area. He doubled down on the criticism when talking to reporters after his round. Did Spieth’s outcry persuade the USGA leadership to play the hole as a par-5 on Sunday, even though there is an institutional bias toward a tough par-4 as a finishing hole? Maybe, maybe not, but it was the first taste of the political capital that comes with being the game’s best player. (Sorry, Rory.)

Spieth smashed his drive on 18, and it looked for all the world to be headed into the bunker from which he made his double bogey. But the ball took a soft bounce on the burned-out fairways and stopped three paces short of the sand, on a gentle upslope that would help him launch his approach shot from 279 yards. The perfect lie was one of the lucky little breaks on which a career can hinge. “I couldn’t have walked up there and placed the ball any better,” Spieth said. “That slope allowed me to hit 3-wood and get it in the air. That was absolutely huge.” His cut shot was flirting with a greenside bunker until, in his estimation, a puff of wind at the last moment blew the ball onto the right edge of the green, and from there it rode a ridge to within 15 feet of the hole. The shot was an instant classic. It is testament to how many big putts Spieth has already made in his career that it rated as a surprise he didn’t bury the eagle try. Still, the tap-in birdie gave him back the solo lead at five under.

Johnson had already shoved a 353-yard drive down the throat of the fairway, and then he pured a 5-iron to 13 feet, setting up a slippery downhill slider for eagle to win. Sequestered in the scoring area, Spieth agonized over having left the tournament in someone else’s hands. “How did I possibly let this happen?” he asked Greller. But watching as other players beat themselves is right out of the Woods playbook, which he borrowed from Jack Nicklaus, a student of Bobby Jones, who once said, “Nobody wins the Open. Everyone else just loses it.”

As Johnson surveyed his putt, his glamorous band of supporters gathered on the hill above the 18th green: his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, who was clutching their five-month-old baby boy, Tatum; Paulina’s famous dad, Wayne, and his wife, Janet; and Sam Maddox, the girlfriend to Johnson’s caddie/brother Austin. Like Paulina, Maddox was turned out in tight pants, a tight top and shoes not fit for a golf course, let alone the hilly terrain of Chambers Bay.

Johnson’s putt raised a series of questions: Does winning make you a better person? Can absolution be found on a golf course? If a putting surface is yellow and brown, can you still call it a green? He ran the eagle attempt four feet past. In the blink of an eye, Johnson went from a chance at everlasting glory to needing to make a knee-knocker just to force an 18-hole Monday playoff. Longtime Tour player Scott -McCarron, who was working as an on-course reporter for Fox, was now off-duty, so as he stood next to the green he whispered his analysis to an audience of one: “He’s going to miss left. He’s been coming up and out of his putts all day and missing right, and this time he’s going to over-correct.” And so Johnson did, touching off a delirious celebration among the very tight Spieth clan, salt-of-the-earth Texans who had spent the agonizing wait trying to stay out of view of the TV cameras.

Now the oldest of the three Spieth kids gets to chase the third leg of the Grand Slam at next month’s British Open, at the Old Course, which has long been a proving ground for golfing genius. Spieth is the youngest U.S. Open champ since the great Jones in 1923, and the first player to claim the national championship with a 72nd hole birdie since Jones in ’26. An hour after it was over Spieth was still trying to make sense of the gut-wrenching finish. “I’m still in shock,” he said. “You only get a few moments in your life like this. And to have two in one year, that’s hard to wrap my head around.”

The road to the Open began the week after the Masters, at Hilton Head. Spieth had flown from Augusta to New York City for a whirlwind media tour, and he was exhausted and overwhelmed as he arrived back in South Carolina on the eve of the RBC Heritage. It showed during a first-round 74. The next day Spieth shot 62, and he kept grinding en route to an 11th-place finish that was a monument to his resolve and professionalism. “One of the more impressive things I’ve seen him do,” says Greller.

Throughout the spring the U.S. Open was Spieth’s sole focus. He felt he had a secret weapon in Greller, who makes his home in the Tacoma area and was married at Chambers Bay two years ago. In his previous life as a middle school math and science teacher, Greller had moonlighted as a caddie at Chambers, and Spieth came to believe his looper’s knowledge would be a decisive advantage on a track few of the pros had seen. Said Greller on Saturday night, “It’s been five years, and the course has changed so much I honestly don’t know these greens any better than, say, Colonial. But if Jordan believes we have an advantage, that’s all that matters.” Spieth repeatedly called in his caddie to consult on putts, though in Greller’s telling he was mostly just confirming for his boss what a great read he had made. “He likes me to pump him up,” Greller says.

The bumpy putting surfaces at Chambers Bay provoked howls of protest from many of the pros, but Spieth wouldn’t get sucked into the controversy. “Well, we got over it,” he said on Sunday night. “Someone had to hold the trophy. There’s noise around every golf tournament about a pin position here or the greens are this or the layout is that. The quicker you realize that and don’t worry about it, the easier it is just to move on with your game, and that’s what we try to do.” In fact, he credited his opening two-under-par 68 to his putting, saying it probably should have been a 73. The scary thing about Spieth’s run is that at the Masters and the Open he didn’t have his best ball-striking weeks, but he eked out the lowest possible scores.

Away from the course Spieth and his family have found a winning formula to deal with his cresting stardom. “We keep it as normal as possible,” says Spieth’s father, Shawn, who along with his wife, Chris, shared a rental house with Jordan and younger brother Steven last week. (Sister Ellie was back home in Dallas.) “Don’t read anything about the golf, don’t watch anything, just have nice, quiet family time.”

That cloistered approach stood in stark contrast to Johnson’s group. Paulina Gretzky chose Thursday of Open week, of all days, to release on Instagram a photo of herself in a tiny bikini, showing off a nubile post-pregnancy body. Although he was hitting the ball beautifully, Johnson complained after every round of all the squandered opportunities, which is of a piece for a player who habitually has done less with more. Johnson’s raw talent has made him a fixture near the top of the World Ranking, but for years his coach, Butch Harmon, grumbled that every other top player was outworking his protégé. Johnson’s on-course carelessness became part of the narrative when he blew prime chances at three major championships during the final round in the span of 13 months, beginning with the 2010 U.S. Open, where he took a three-stroke lead into Sunday and shot 82. In the cliquish South Florida golf community, stories began circulating of Johnson’s excessive partying, but they were usually greeted with a shrug. It was just Dustin being Dustin.

Johnson’s bad habits finally caught up with him last July, when he announced he was taking a “leave of absence” to address “personal challenges.” Two days later SI senior writer Michael Bamberger reported on that Johnson had failed the third drug test of his career. Bamberger’s highly placed confidential source had access to PGA Tour documents that spelled out the timing of the failed tests and the drugs in question (marijuana in 2009, cocaine in ’12 and ’14). Johnson was facing a six-month suspension that was satisfied by his leave, a game of semantics that was useful in preserving his lucrative endorsement portfolio, which at the time was estimated at $5 million a year.

Still, Johnson’s nonsuspension suspension seemed to be the first time in his career he was being held accountable for his actions. (In 2012, following the second failed test, he missed the Masters during an 11-week hiatus, an absence Johnson insisted was the result of being injured in a JetSki incident.) When he returned to action in February—almost six months to the day after he had left—Johnson said all the right things, to SI and others, about having matured. He seemed excited about the responsibilities of fatherhood. In March, in his fifth start back, he won the biggest tournament of his career, the WGC at Doral. It offered an easy tale of redemption that the media spooned up, but there was a dark lining. In the victor’s press conference Bamberger asked Johnson if he had ever failed a drug test. Johnson offered a two-word answer: “No. Thanks.”

Once again Johnson was skating by. Harry Vardon won a U.S. Open long before the modern media age—115 years ago, to be precise—but he had a fundamental understanding of golf’s inner battle. “For this game,” Vardon once said, “you need, above all things, to be in a tranquil frame of mind.” Alone between the ropes, watched by the world, Johnson radiates an admirable insouciance, but something is clearly holding him back despite his manifold physical gifts. Spieth put his finger on it on Sunday night when he was asked if prevailing at golf’s biggest events comes down to technique or character.

“I think both have to be there,” he said.

Does the stress of major championships reveal who a person really is?

“I think a little bit, yeah,” Spieth said. “Or at least you can then see exactly what it all means to somebody.”

Those close to Johnson have always marveled at his ability to rebound from disappointment. As he was signing his scorecard, Paulina stood nearby, wiping away tears from behind her aviator shades. Wayne paced in circles. “I’m so upset for him,” said the Great One of his future son-in-law. “He played his heart out. He was up, he was down, he was back in it, then it was gone. It stings.”

When Johnson finally emerged, he was the only one smiling. He took Paulina by the hand, saying, “Hey, babe, come with me.” They disappeared into the night.

Maybe Johnson can find what’s missing at the Old Course. After all, it agreed with another massively talented bomber with a checkered past, John Daly. But St. Andrews is usually the domain of golf royalty. Jones, Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Woods (twice) are among those who have won the claret jug there. The quirky, craggy old links demands creativity, which makes it perfect for the new U.S. Open champ. As Spieth said in his charming way on Sunday, “I’ve proven to myself that I can win on a British-style golf course. Now I take it to the truest British-style golf course of any in the world.”

Spieth joins Craig Wood, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods in winning the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year; only Hogan, in 1953, went on to take the British Open. Spieth departed Chambers Bay looking to make more history. The man he vanquished walked away still trying to find himself.

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