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The Loop

Spieth's uneven play proves at Oakmont, you just can't fake it


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June 18, 2016

OAKMONT, Pa. — Unless something truly magical happens on Sunday—like coming back from nine strokes behind, which would exceed the six strokes Johnny Miller made up by shooting a final-round 63 at Oakmont in 1973—it looks like this just wasn’t Jordan Spieth’s week.

At the end of play Saturday, his four-over-par 214 total put him nine shots behind leader Shane Lowry, who has four holes left on his third round.

With Spieth, as always, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The 22-year-old World No. 2 was at his most engaged—barking at his ball, getting in animated exchanges with caddie Michael Greller and generally grinding with all his considerable will.

Oakmont punishes everything even marginally wayward, and Spieth came with what has amounted to a B-minus game.

The problem has been will alone isn’t going to cut it at Oakmont. At last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the course was wide enough and the rough sparse enough to forgive some off-line shots. But Oakmont punishes everything even marginally wayward, and Spieth came with what has amounted to a B-minus game.

Oakmont is about fairways and greens, and with even his vaunted scrambling abilities neutralized by Oakmont’s rough and green contours, Spieth didn’t hit enough of them. Through Saturday, he was T-39 in driving accuracy at just under 60 percent, T-52 in greens in regulation at 57 percent (behind Daniel Berger’s leading 79 percent). For extended parts of his first three rounds, it seemed like he was in a bunker about every other hole.

It was an extension of Spieth’s overall play this season. The normally good iron player ranks 113th in the PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained/Approach the Green, and 124th in greens in regulation (he was 11th and 49th, respectively, last season). And the game’s best putter by acclimation ranks 86th in putts from four to eight feet, and 115th from inside 10 feet.

In his pre-tournament press conference on Monday, Spieth admitted that there have been times at other majors when he’s had to dig deep to make up for deficiencies in his long game. “The Masters this year, tee to green, I felt much worse than I did at [tour] events where I finished 25th,” he said. “But because I just felt that we were ready and that we could do it and I could draw on past experiences, especially in that event, we got into contention. I willed the putts in. I couldn’t really describe it to you other than it just being kind of a mental state of being confident in the majors.”

Spieth may very well have reached a similar mental state, drawing on his U.S. Open win at Chambers Bay. But this was Oakmont, where intangibles are subordinate to the tangible of striking the ball far and sure. And Spieth hasn’t quite had it.

Even the intangibles didn’t seem aligned in Spieth’s favor. On the first day, he was miffed that a warm-up period was not allowed after an hour and 19 minute interruption for weather. He then came out to the 14th hole and raced a relatively simple chip past the hole for a soft bogey. Moments before a second delay was called, as he prepared to hit his second shot to the 17th, Spieth noted a lightning bolt in the area, but was instructed to play on. He then hit what he thought was a perfect wedge shot that landed next to the hole, only to see it spin back some 50 feet into a bunker. After the delay, Spieth saved par, but a pattern had been set.

On Saturday’s third round, in which Spieth drew the temperamental Spencer Levin as one of his playing partners, he started out hot in his back nine start, birdieing the 11th, 12th and 13th holes to get to one-over par. But on the short par four 17th, he missed a five-footer for a birdie that hurt. Then on the 18th tee, a car horn in the middle of his swing contributed to his ball going wide right. Coming off the tee, he was informed by Mark Russell that the group was on the clock. Spieth made par, but his momentum was fading.

It was gone for good when he doubled bogeyed the par four second hole, where bunkered his approach on the short side into a semi-buried lie, came out long in the greenside rough, chipped 25 feet past and two putted. He followed by missing a five-footer for par on the third. He made a birdie coming in to shoot even par 70.

It’s probable that Spieth’s streak of finishing no worse than fourth in the last five majors will be over. And more questions about his scar tissue from his Masters loss (which he insisted at Oakmont ended with his win last month at Colonial), will be asked.

Then again, Spieth, who early Saturday said he still thought even par would be the winning score, could pull off a miracle. It’s happened at Oakmont before.