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It turns out, the modern tour pros didn't invent whining about golf courses. Before that major 65 years ago, the USGA toughened the track in Birmingham, Michigan, and players were NOT happy.
In Tim Scott's, Ben Hogan: The Myths Everyone Knows, the Man No One Knew, the author chronicles some of the reactions Dan Jenkins reported hearing from the golfers who participated that week.
"You have to walk down these fairways single file." -- Cary Middlecoff.
"I thought I was going to a golf tournament, not a safari." -- Sam Snead.
"If I had to play this course for a living every week, I'd get into another business." -- Ben Hogan.
Hogan won with a winning score of seven over par thanks to a closing 67 and then at the trophy presentation famously said, "I'm glad I brought this course -- this monster -- to its knees."
Jenkins considered the writers covering the event winners as well. "More than one golf writer thought he had died and gone to quote heaven," he said.
Jenkins also said "the golfers were howling and complaining in a way they haven't at any Open since." Well, perhaps they hadn't until this past week.
Everyone from Billy Horschel to Gary Player weighed in on the Washington links and most of the opinions were of the negative variety. The course's blended fescue-Poa Annua greens took the brunt of the criticism, but the severe slopes and changing pars also didn't go over too well with many players.
In the end, Jordan Spieth -- who was picked up by a mic complaining about the 18th hole playing as a par 4 on Friday -- brought this monster to its knees. We can only imagine the grumbling if the winning par had been seven over.
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25: Number of players under par in the first round, the most since the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
29: Back-nine score of Louis Oosthuizen on Sunday, who tied a U.S. Open record. The South African birdied six of his last seven holes and nearly stole the tournament from everyone.
132: Oosthuizen's total for his second and third rounds after opening the tournament with 77. The 132 is a new record low for anyone in the middle two rounds at a U.S. Open. And his 199 total for the final three rounds broke the previous record by three shots.
6: Number of players who made 18 birdies for the week, including winner Jordan Spieth and runner-ups Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. That's an average of 4.5 per round. Only Jason Day (4.62) averages that many birdies per round so far this season.
8: Number of players who finished under par, which other than 2011 at soggy Congressional, matched the most since the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where five under was also the winning score.
16: Number of players in the field who hit at least 75 percent of Chambers Bay's greens in regulation for the week. Henrik Stenson leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation this season with an average of only 73.26 percent.
71.29: Final-round scoring average, the lowest average of any round in any U.S. Open. Ever.
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That's how I planned to end this piece, back when I sat on the bank overlooking the 14th hole on Sunday, dead sure that Jordan Spieth would win the U.S. Open. I had just left Dustin Johnson behind after two bogeys and a three-putt par on 12 that might as well have been a bogey. I was supposed to stay with him all day, but when the energy starts to gather around a player like Spieth, you'd be an idiot to stay away. The prospect of walking up the 13th hole with DJ while the real action was taking place by the water was too daunting to consider, and so I abandoned him.
Johnson's playing partner, Jason Day, wasn't much better. He couldn't hit a short putt all day, and was visibly sagging after his bout with vertigo that led to an on-course collapse Friday. The heroism of Saturday's 68 was long past, and now he looked impossibly feeble. At times, the stiffness of his gait, the pained expressions, and the way he used his club as a cane all took on the appearance of melodrama -- he couldn't bend down to pick up his tee on the 11th, but he scooped it with ease on the 12th -- and it never felt quite as compelling as it had a day earlier. The geniuses at Fox didn't help matters by dedicating a camera to watching him walk between holes, even using a pointless split screen to follow his movements when actual golf was being played elsewhere. How, I wondered, is it possible to make even vertigo tacky? All they were missing was a sensational slogan: "When he collapses, we'll be there!" A few Internet wits on my Twitter feed theorized that if Day didn't oblige them by crumpling into a heap at some point, a Fox executive would appear on site with an elephant gun loaded with tranquilizers...or maybe they'd take the coward's way out and just fly a drone into his head.
Dustin Johnson's putt to tie at 18 slides by. (Getty Images)
In reality, the drama never transpired. Instead, Day played like he usually plays in these moments: Lots of missed putts. On nine and 11 and 12, his tee-to-green game looked fine, but his short putts slid by the hole -- USGA czar Mike Davis, looking on, gave a "wow!" after the miss on 10, possibly inspired by the fear that a mutant stalk of poa annua had shot up at the last moment to stop the ball in its tracks -- and then he lost his chance for good with a double bogey on 13.
Dustin's fade was slower, and somewhat less agonizing, but it followed a similar formula: Opportunity after opportunity wasted, sometimes against all logic. He bogeyed again on 13 after I had cut across the fescue to the 14th fairway, so I wrote him off and came up with that cute line about Rory and Tiger.
I felt I had learned something about Dustin anyway -- something debilitating and a little bit sad -- stemming from the fact that he rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin. It presented a stark contrast with Spieth, who kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else. He uses Greller as his own personal security blanket, and Greller knows exactly how to play the role. Even in the moments of tension, the caddie is careful not to break character. On 15, for instance, Spieth had to make a short but tricky par putt after a tee shot that, despite his exhortations, rolled down a false front after flirting with the flag. A recovery putt set up the par chance, and when the ball went in the hole, Greller turned away from Spieth and just stared into the distance, his face taut as the skin of a drum. You could feel his desire to scream in relief, to let the tension emanate like doppler waves and knock us all over, but that's not his role -- he's the rock in Spieth's never-ending storm of emotions, and even a simple "oh thank God" isn't in the cards. So he just stared out over our heads for a nonverbal moment, and then he turned back to Spieth with an encouraging word. Greller's mask doesn't slip, and that's what it means to be a pro.
With Dustin, though, there's a sense of anarchy that doesn't go very well with the tension of a major championship. Austin is not the caddie with the exhaustive plan, or the supportive word. On Sunday, he didn't even serve to loosen his brother up at critical moments -- it was all silence and a few awkward laughs. I've heard a theory going around the media center that -- let's just put it bluntly -- Dustin is too dumb to be affected by nerves. But nerves are like water seeping through the cracks in a rock, and they will always find a way. The idea that a lack of intelligence makes someone immune is nonsense, and Chambers Bay proved it for the third time in Johnson's career. What he needed instead was a comprehensive plan.
With Spieth, there was always the sense that a meticulous, all-encompassing strategy was being deployed, with plan Bs and Cs where A wouldn't fly. This is what a golfer covets -- it's why they all use the royal "we" when talking about themselves in press conferences. One person strikes the ball, but a whole team can take part in the preparation and at least give the helpful illusion of collaboration. In some kind of metaphysical way, I believe this kind of group forethought somehow makes a golfer luckier, as though he can convince the universe to be on his side.
But where were Dustin's collaborators? Where was his brother when I saw him shaking his head vigorously after a poor approach on 10, as if trying to rid himself of a bad thought? By the time he struck his tee shot on the 13th hole after the run of bogeys, I felt a surge of pure pity toward him. I realize how strange that sounds, since he has the body of a god and the money of a king, but in that moment I saw him laid bare in a state of pure solitude. He had nobody to help curb the terrible loneliness inherent in golf, and he had to stand up to the relentless pressure all by himself. It was like watching a hurricane make landfall, and while Team Spieth had a fortified underground bunker ready, Dustin didn't even have the sense to strap himself to a tree.
He wasn't equipped for it. He was like a lamb to the slaughter. I left him for the golden child, because I couldn't stand to watch.
Alongside the holes, we walked like ancient warriors along the narrow footpaths built into the hills. People stood in silhouette atop the ridges like scouts. The sun beat down. Past the lone fir you could see a lone sailboat in the lone sound. There was an island out there, someone told me, where they used to keep convicts. An osprey coasted by, wings spread to the wind. The passenger trains rumbled past, and the ground shook. The voice on my radio said, "we don't know the heart of Branden Grace."
He was right, at least as far as I was concerned, and I was glad when Grace hit a ball out of bounds on the 16th hole, because he was looking very tough and had apparently closed out six straight 54-hole leads, and I very much didn't want to write in vague terms about the "stoic South African."
But the stoic South African hit his tee shot on 16 down to the green fence along the water, out of bounds, and that was that. With him out of the way, Spieth had the defining moment of greatness I was waiting for -- the 28-foot birdie putt that curled into the hole. He turned to the Puget Sound and screamed. Now, at -6, he knew he'd won. I knew it too.
We were both wrong, even though we were right. Because on 17, he pushed a 6-iron to the right, played a very mature recovery onto the green, and settled for a safe bogey.
Unfortunately, Chambers Bay didn't settle for a safe bogey -- the nasty up-jumped gravel pit wanted a double, and that's what it got. I groaned, because if he was going to blow it now, what did all the narratives mean? Why had Greller spent a week as a life coach disguised as a caddie, quieting the cameras and reading the greens and offering cut-rate therapy? What did it mean if DJ's collapse wasn't a collapse at all? Jesus, wasn't he still at -3? What did it mean that I heard a roar as I made my way through the tunnel beneath the stands to the 18th green, stepping over the empty bottles and wrappers thrown down from the seats? What did it mean when Johnson birdied to tie Spieth at -4, and that Oosthuizen, of all people, had reached the same number?
Earlier, I'd texted my editor that I was on the scene for the collapse, and he texted me, "we're a long way from a collapse." It was frustrating to discover that he'd been right, and that my narratives were being burned like the marina on Saturday, black smoke streaming from the memory of my stillborn story.
The drama that waited...
Spieth with his stunner of a 3-wood, 284 yards, off the backboard, around the green, somehow holding the upper tier. The roars that greeted him, everyone on their feet beneath the USGA flags whipping in the wind. The two-putt for birdie that took Spieth to -5 and put Oosthuizen out of his misery -- the misery being that the poisonous 80 shot by Tiger Woods on Thursday had attached a bloody anchor to him, and it didn't even matter that he was the best golfer on the course by a wide margin from Friday to Sunday. The clap of frustration as Jordan climbed the hill and disappeared, awaiting his fate.
DJ with his drive, and his perfect approach. And the three agonizing putts that made us all feel, no hyperbole, like we'd all failed. It was the worst kind of sympathetic reaction -- every one of us choked alongside him, even as we were bearing witness. The reality of Spieth's win, which is the best thing that could have happened to this sport, was momentarily muted by a feeling of collective suffering on the 18th green.
I wasn't there when Dustin gave the press a few halfhearted quotes, leaning against a fence outside the player hospitality tent, but I'm told his face was blank and his affect was flat. No surprise. He's not the kind of person to give you the closure that comes with tears, or rage, or even a momentary, despondent stare. You wonder what he's feeling, or if he's feeling at all. He has to be, right? But then he bolts, and you can't blame him, and the spotlight shifts to the youngest winner of two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922.
So: Congratulations to Rory McIlroy, who just earned a prize that eluded Tiger Woods for his entire career: A true rival.
But that would be a cheap way to end. Why define a champion by someone else?
Now on the TV monitor, the golden child is grinning on the 18th green, a weary kind of smile for someone so young, but that's just the shadow effect of an old soul. I spent a year mostly ignorant of the fierce budding legend hiding behind the baby face. It takes time to become visible, but suddenly his face catches the sunlight in a certain way, and a halo surrounds him. You feel a flush of foreign energy and a pang of nostalgia -- this is what it looks like when someone is just past the cusp of greatness.
After Dustin missed his eagle putt, I thought of a last way I might end this piece, on a note of dramatic anticipation. How about this, I thought, nice and simple: Let's do it again tomorrow.
But that wasn't an honest reaction. What I really felt, sitting in the fescue as he stood over the comebacker that would precipitate the dreaded Monday playoff, was a deep sense of foreboding. There are certain ways you never want something to end, and the horror of it all became immediately apparent.
And I thought: "Please don't miss, Dustin. Please, do not miss this fucking putt."
Shane Ryan is the author of Slaying The Tiger: A Year Inside The Ropes On The New PGA Tour.
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By winning at Augusta, where every blade of grass has its own personal attendant, and winning at Chambers Bay, where grass is tolerated but not encouraged, the 21-year-old Texan has proven he can win anywhere, and perhaps especially can win at St. Andrews, where the gods of golf sip sherry while deciding if it is time to reach down and tap a kid on the shoulder.
They had a good look at Jordan Spieth in the 18th fairway at Chambers Bay on Sunday. There he stood with a 3-wood in hand, 284 yards to the flagstick, playing a hole that he had insulted only two days before. “The dumbest hole I’ve ever played,” he called it. Proving that even gods have a sense of humor, they arranged for him to be on the 18th again - needing a birdie 4 on the par-5 hole to win golf’s most important tournament. And he would need to strike that 3-wood perfectly immediately after making a mess of the 17th, where he three-putted for a double bogey.
Oh, my. He thought he had won the tournament with a long, curling birdie putt at the 16th. Then he thought he might have lost it at the 17th. At the 18th, if he mis-hit the 3-wood and had to settle for par, he would lose if Dustin Johnson came home with a birdie there, as he almost surely would do.
“That was very, very much intense there on the back nine,” he said, for there the implacable Johnson was in charge until he wasn’t, and major champions took turns firing warning shots across Spieth’s bow: Adam Scott with a six-under-par 64, Rory McIlroy 66, Louis Oosthuizen 66, Charl Schwartzel 66.
Of all the things Spieth might have done under pressure with a 3-wood from 284 on the 72nd hole of an U.S. Open - bunkers, gnarly green side weeds, and, remember, Tiger Woods cold-topped a 3-wood from about the same spot Thursday - Spieth did the precisely perfect thing. His shot rolled to a stop 15 feet from the cup. Two putts gave him a 69 and a one-shot lead with Johnson coming to the green.
But Johnson’s 5-iron from 247 yards had left him with a 12-footer for eagle and the big, silver trophy with all those big, shiny names on it. It was 1926 when Bobby Jones made a birdie at the 72nd hole to win the U.S. Open. No one had done that before or since. And an eagle? No one ever had done the thing that Johnson now might do from 12 feet. Even if he missed the eagle putt, he surely would tap in the second and he would go against Spieth in a playoff Monday.
But my, my, the gods of golf do love themselves some Jordan Spieth. Poor Dustin Johnson. “On the last green, just talking to my brother, I thought this was exactly why I’m here,” Johnson said. “This is why I play the game of golf. I’ve got a chance to win the U.S. Open on the last hole.” But he rolled that first putt maybe four feet past. Then he missed the little comebacker as well. “I had it just inside right,” he said of that killing putt. “I don’t know, I thought I hit it pretty decent. Just missed left.” The assembled thousands in the majestic grandstands around the 18th green had roared in thanks when Spieth made birdie for them. Now, when Johnson slouched toward his third putt, finally causing the ball to disappear, not a sound was heard. As he left the green, his fiancé, Paulina Gretzky, handed him their child, a boy, Tatum, five months old.
“Golf is golf, and family is what’s important,” he said. “My trophy at the end of the day is holding up my little man.”
The big, silver trophy stood alongside Spieth when he spoke to reporters.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s incredible. It really is. It’s incredible to win a major championship. You only get a few moments in your life like this, and I recognize that. And to have two in one year and to still be early in the year, that’s hard to wrap my head around.”
Someone called the roll of the club Spieth has joined. Only Craig Wood, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods have won the Masters and the Open in the same year. The sainted Bobby Jones was invoked more than once.
“That’s a piece of golf history, and as a golf historian, that’s very special and it gives me goose bumps,” Spieth said. “Those names are the greatest that have ever played the game, and I don’t consider myself there - but certainly off to, I think, the right start in order to make an impact on the history of the game.”
Oh, and what does he think of his Grand Slam chances?
“I’m just focused on the Claret Jug now,” he said.
I believe I just heard a clinking of sherry glasses.
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Greller said it on practically every shot during that tense final stretch on Sunday, and it had nothing to do with Spieth trying to hold his finish so it looked good against a backdrop of Puget Sound. Instead it was an attempt to simplify the player's swing thoughts when his mind raced over the weekend.
Jordan Spieth and caddie Michael Greller (Getty Images)
"It means zero in, really focus on the shot, on the target," Spieth said. "I didn't have full control of the golf ball. When that happens, I start thinking about different things in my swing. Just paint a picture, zero in on the target. Don't worry about your swing, the ball will go there as long as you focus on it. That's how it works. He was reiterating that today and yesterday. That's what we were focusing on is seeing the ball flight, seeing it land, understanding where it's going to roll to.”
As opposed to the Masters, when Spieth felt comfortable enough over the ball he needed little coaching, he said Greller did some of his best work at Chambers Bay. Greller had intimate knowledge of the course owing to his experience as a Chambers Bay caddie before hooking on with Spieth in 2012. But more than course management, it was the caddie's efforts in subduing a player whose nervous energy was palpable during the final round.
"That was probably the best work Michael has ever done this week to get me through," Spieth said. "At Augusta I was on and making everything and striking the ball fantastic. He was the one that got me through this week when I wanted to get down when things weren't going well."
Typical of one of the closest player-caddie relationships on tour, Greller said Spieth overstated his role in the player's second straight major win. More likely the answer falls somewhere in between.
"He's one of the best players in the world, and I was just trying to stay out of his way," said Greller, who was married at Chambers Bay two years ago. "I've worked hard the last couple of weeks, but I haven’t been out here in five years. The course has changed. The guys that I've caddied for usually can't break 90, or it's myself playing and I can't break 80. I throw out any -- I'm sure he's being nice, but it comes down to Jordan just being one of the best players in the world.”
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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- Crazy things can happen at Chambers Bay, as we've already seen, but barring a series of incredible collapses, it's reasonable to expect that today's U.S. Open winner will come from the group of four golfers starting their rounds at four: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, and Branden Grace. There's really no bad outcome here -- please don't shoot 59, Joost Luiten -- so let's take a moment to examine why you should root for each of them. Starting with the wunderkind...
Jordan Spieth: Because he's Jordan Spieth! He's the chosen one, the golden child, and if he wins today, the rivalry with Rory McIlroy that we've all hoped for will be 100 percent on. It will put a stamp on the youth revolution of 2014-15, but that matters less than what it will say about Spieth himself. Seriously, think about this for a second -- he will have two major championships at age 21. That's not just great, that's insanely great. That's the kind of start that justifies crazy predictions -- if I say he's going to break Tiger's record down the line, who are you to tell me I'm wrong? You can say what you want, but here's my counter-argument: THE DUDE HAS TWO MAJORS AT AGE 21. It would be wonderful for American golf, and make no mistake -- it would light a fire under Rory McIlroy. It would set the stage for the rivalry that we always dreamed of between Tiger and Phil, but that never came to fruition due to Phil's inconsistency. My contention is that we jumped the gun with the post-Masters coronation, but I'll drop my reservations completely if he conquers Chambers Bay. With a win, Spieth could singlehandedly give golf the narrative gasoline to drive the sport for the next two years, and quite possibly the next two decades.
And one more thing: I predicted that the more Spieth won, the less we'd get to see of his personality. But judging by his media appearances at Chambers Bay, the exact opposite seems to be true. He's been a delight in every way, smart and funny, and I highly prefer this version of Jordan to the more polished, closed-off kid we saw last year. Spieth winning today would be absolutely gigantic for golf.
Jason Day: Where do we start? First of all, the guy actually collapsed from vertigo symptoms on Friday, which makes his Saturday 68 all kinds of heroic. If he wins today, this will go down as one of the most gutsy wins in golf history...no, forget that...sports history. It will be every bit as impressive as Michael Jordan's flu game, or Curt Schilling's bloody sock performance (though, as a Yankee fan, I still insist that was ketchup). In his short interview after yesterday's round, Day admitted that he felt terrible all day, and I have no idea how he managed to stagger up and down the steep hills at Chamber's Bay, fearing a collapse at any moment, and fought his way to the lead at a major championship. I find myself wanting to type more and more words about the physical courage that shows, because I really don't think we can underestimate the feat of endurance he just pulled off. And if he does it two days in a row? That might literally stop the presses, break the Internet, and probably destroy your cell phone, too. It will demonstrate a kind of athletic resilience that we may never see in golf again.
On a broader level, these types of obstacles are nothing new to Day. He grew up in extreme poverty in Australia -- his first club came from the town dump -- lost his dad at age 12, became an alcoholic, and has had to fight tooth and nail for every gain he's ever made in life. Every time he seemed poised to break through, an injury hampered him, and though I typically hate the word 'deserve,' truth is truth: More than any other golfer, Day deserves this.
Dustin Johnson: As I wrote yesterday, the final round could represent the culmination of a long and rocky road for DJ. Like Day, he's lived a complicated life, but most of DJ's complications seem to be self-inflicted, starting with legal trouble in high school and continuing through ALLEGED failed drug tests on the Tour. Whether he truly has his life together at this moment due to fatherhood or maturity or whatever is anyone's guess, but regardless of his mental state, he has too much talent to go deep into his 30s with no major championships.
He doesn't give the best interviews, and I'm not going to sit here and argue that he's golf's version of Einstein. Day and Spieth would be dream champions in terms of public relations, while DJ would be closer to a nightmare. Even so, there's a lot to love about him, as the crowds who scream his name nonstop can attest. In its own way, a Johnson win would be great for the game, and it would represent a long-awaited evolution for golf's best athlete.
Branden Grace: Uhhh...oh boy. This might be tough. *Scrambles to open Wikipedia* He, uh...he's South African, apparently?
Okay, fine: I won't pretend Grace has the same storyline of the three Americans. I'm sure his life is interesting, it's just that I don't know his background quite yet. But how about this: Finally, people will learn how to spell his name! I can't tell you how many times in this article alone I've typed "Brandon" or "Brendan," instead of the hybrid "Branden." I'm not saying I'll never make that mistake again, or that others won't, but if he wins a U.S. Open, it can only help the problem, right?
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, so consider this instead: If he comes through today for his first major, he'll have taken down Spieth, DJ, and Jason Day at the same. That's a pretty good story all on its own, right?
One way or another, today will be fantastic. Barring that Luiten 59, anyway ...
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The 18th hole at Chambers Bay (Getty Images)
First reported by Golf World and Golf Channel contributor Tim Rosaforte, the original plan called for reversing par on the first and 18th holes each day, for a total of par 9. But after Friday’s second round exposed the 18th as a less-than-ideal par 4, few could see the USGA finishing with the two-shot version come Sunday. Yet as the round wrapped up Saturday, the Fox Sports broadcast team reiterated the plan to finish as a par 4 and the original Sunday par 4 plan was set.
The final day is experiencing the stiffest breezes of the week and have already exceeded the forecasted plan. Sources within the USGA say the committee grew uncomfortable with the prospect of a peculiar par 4 finish due to the increase in wind. They were not in any way swayed by Jordan Spieth’s criticism (“dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life”) or his post-third round assertion that he might play up the first fairway.
The hole is cut 37 paces back in the 43-pace deep green and in a forgiving bowl that may allow a player to feed a long second shot towards the cut, setting up an eagle possibility.
Besides creating more excitement and respecting the hole's design concept, the decision averts a potential embarrassing scenario with Spieth or other players already critical of the conditions.
Besides, there is already enough trouble lurking at Chambers Bay.
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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- Late in Saturday's round, with a helping breeze blowing along the Puget Sound on the 394-yard 16th hole, Dustin Johnson pulled out his driver. He sauntered to the ball with a lazy swagger, sliced the air with a practice swing, and launched a missile toward the green. "Boom!" shouted four or five voices in unison -- another brilliant plan executed to perfection -- and nearby an impressed girl lost herself in hysterical laughter.
The ball disappeared in the sun, but the cheers from the grandstands ahead presaged what he'd see when he made his way down the fairway -- the shot had run past the pin, barely staying on the back edge of the green, giving him a long chance at eagle. If he made it, he'd move to six under, two shots ahead of the field. A cheer rose behind us -- Spieth's tee shot on 15, which would produce a birdie. But DJ seemed not to hear it, and soon only the drone of the Goodyear blimp could be heard as he approached his ball.
On the green, he walked back and forth between his ball and the hole, and at one point he stepped into the setting sun where it made landfall after tracing a bright, coruscating path along the water. At that moment, he was pure silhouette, and it was the kind of perfect form you'd expect to see on a logo -- tall, slim, powerful, sharp. It was the shape of the man who might be golf's greatest natural talent, and, at the moment, the greatest player without a major. The story of his troubled past is well told by now, but he's still young enough that any concerns are overshadowed by the pure potential he carries with him.
The crowds love DJ -- he's their prodigious younger brother, the insanely talented, somewhat dopey kid who can't help but stumble his clueless way into greatness. They bellow his name, deep and comical, the way you'd hear frat brothers shout to one another across a quad at the beginning of a long night. He greets them with the perfect kind of slow grin, eyes dimly amused, as the long strides carry him away effortlessly.
On 16, he tried to lag his eagle putt onto a small ridge and let it filter to the hole, but it was only moderately successful.
"You or me, man?" asked Branden Grace, his playing partner.
It was still Dustin, and he waited out a small Amtrak passenger train running on the tracks by the water. His birdie putt, which would still have put him one shot clear of Spieth, Grace, and Jason Day, veered to the right and skirted past the hole. The groans rose, and DJ threw back his head in a brief show of dismay. It didn't last long. He just grinned at his misfortune and moseyed on to the 17th as another train -- a freight train this time, with red and green boxcars -- rumbled by in the opposite direction.
This is the kind of person you can believe when he says that losing the 2010 PGA Championship because of a brutal penalty on the last hole didn't bother him too much. He's the kind of person you can believe when you ask him about the troubles of his distant past -- like the time in high school when he helped steal a gun that was later used in a murder -- and he looks at you with mild surprise, saying he hadn't really thought about it in a while. This is the kind of person who seems, on the face of it, perfectly suited to win a major championship, if only because the concept of nerves might not register inside the closed fortress of his mind.
But it's more complicated than that -- in his first big chance at a major victory, in the 2010 U.S. Open, he shot a Sunday 82 to lose a three-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell. He fared better at the PGA, but a tricky bunker proved his undoing, and since then he's notched five top tens without breaking through, all in the midst of absences allegedly related to failed drug tests. At age 30, he's not quite Sergio Garcia or Lee Westwood, but time passes and seasons change, and the longer he goes without a major, the more the whispers will rise -- is the pressure getting to him in ways we can't understand?
His iron held up on the 17th green -- but then again, the entire course is like one big green, or is it all fairway? -- before two-putting for par. He launched another perfect drive on 18, and he and his brother-slash-caddie AJ were all smiles as they paced up the long last hole, where he missed another birdie putt to remain at four under. In the end, the fact that he tapped in for his par before Branden Grace put him in the final group with Jason Day, while Grace and Spieth will be chasing them from a group ahead.
The post-round interviews presented a series of personality contrasts that bordered on absurd. Patrick Reed came first, seething after his 76, speaking like a boy whose mother was forcing him to apologize, against his will, to a kid he bullied at school. Spieth was last, and the more he appears, the more he blossoms into a personality that is effusive, biting, humorous, cynical, earnest, intelligent, and veering between stoic and manic. Between them, DJ held court with his unbroken monotone. Believe me when I tell you that none of his quotes are worth repeating, except for the time he said he was "excited" for Sunday -- a word that was funny only because of its aggressively dull intonation.
Chambers Bay is almost ideally suited to Johnson's game. With his long drives, his high approaches, and his level putting, the course won't scare him the way it scares some of his competitors. Sunday, he'll be paired with a golfer who has spent the last two days staggering around with vertigo, mostly hoping to keep his feet. Behind him is a relatively unknown South African and a the boy wonder who wears the green jacket and hopes the mental advantage of owning a major title will pay dividends against three golfers chasing their first. It's an odd cast of characters, and he'll have to solve the riddle of his own mind in order to win. How do you keep that useful laid-back attitude, but not be overcome by the pressure of what will be, one way or another, a career-defining round?
Last year, DJ's agent told me that he will be the best golfer in the world the minute he chooses to fulfill that destiny. I'd heard the same sentiment from others, but I was never sure if there was truly a choice, or if he was doomed to repeat what had become a pattern -- nearly reaching the mountaintop before plummeting back down. Tomorrow, at some point, he's going to eye the peak again. He'll be propelled upward by the talent that makes a major title his destiny, and he'll be pulled down by the gravity of all the peripheral troubles that he's trying to escape.
Which force will be greater? On some unconscious level, he'll have to ask himself that question. And on a very public stage, he'll have to answer it.
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