When Dustin Johnson’s final putt didn’t go in on Sunday at Chambers Bay, it was only the last of a remarkable series of storylines that unfolded over the course of a week on the shores of Puget Sound.
Imagine a week in which Tiger Woods shoots 80-76 to miss the cut by about 100 and is little more than a footnote by the end of the weekend. Imagine Phil Mickelson making the cut but being irrelevant on Sunday and Rory McIlroy finally making a couple of putts on Sunday to backdoor to a T-9 after being completely betrayed by his putter for three days.
Imagine a week in which discussions of the golf course ranged from marveling at the aesthetics of it to Gary Player bizarrely finding it ‘tragic.’ Imagine a week in which Johnson completed a dubious Grand Slam of his own – finding himself in position to win a major championship for a fourth time and failing for a fourth time.
Imagine Jason Day showing remarkable guts by literally getting up off the mat on Friday and staggering – at times – through Saturday and Sunday and putting himself into position, at least for a while, to pull off the most remarkable Open story since Ken Venturi staggered to victory in 1964.
And imagine Jordan Spieth backing up his Masters victory by winning the Open on a golf course that could not possibly be more different than Augusta National.
Wow. That’s a lot to digest in a week. No doubt it will be discussed for a long time to come.
Let us begin with the golf course because that’s how the week began, with endless discussions about it. There is no doubting that there has never been an Open like this one with a course that looked like a links but didn’t always play like one because of all the elevation changes. It was, unquestionably, the most difficult golf course to walk, for players and spectators, in history.
But, the whining. Oh goodness, the whining.
To be fair, players whine about the Open every year, it’s as much a tradition as the claret jug is at the British Open. The greens are too fast, the rough is too penal or the rough isn’t penal enough and the greens aren’t fast enough. Moving tees around is a great idea or – ask Jim Furyk circa 2012 – a terrible idea.
Pinehurst was too brown; the fairways were unhittable at Merion. Heck, Frances Ouimet probably complained about the setup at The Country Club in 1913.
This though was different. There was clear disdain in the comments being made, not just by players, but by media members and TV analysts. People in golf simply aren’t ever comfortable with DIFFERENT. They would prefer to see the game played the way Old Tom Morris played it and any deviation from what is considered the norm brings gasps and major head-shaking. Remember, it wasn't all that long ago that the thought of letting caddies wear shorts created a scene at the PGA Championship. It’s been three years since Augusta National began admitting women and less than a year since the Royal and Ancient Golf Club followed suit.
So, the notion of a golf course with funky bounces and backboards on the greens and greens that weren’t terribly green sent people into a tizzy. Player’s reaction during an appearance on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” was especially over the top. In the midst of calling Chambers Bay the worst U.S. Open golf course in history, he called the setup “tragic.” If nothing else, the timing of such a comment, three days after the real tragedy that took place in Charleston, was unfortunate.
In spite of all the yammering, they played the championship anyway. And, if you happen to like golf, it turned out just fine.
Not so much for Woods. The script for him has now become familiar: pre-tournament he’s all about process and improvement and sticking to the plan. Which is fine if the plan appears to be moving forward. At the moment, the plan appears to be progressing about as well as New Coke did back in 1985. Remember when the Coca-Cola people insisted it was just a matter of time before people embraced New Coke? Then they brought back Coke Classic. Finally, New Coke disappeared altogether.
The current Woods plan is working about as well as New Coke. Everyone who knows him well insists there is no way he will ever swallow his pride and go back to Butch Harmon. If that’s the case, it may well be that we will never see a shadow of the player formerly known as Tiger Woods.
IF Woods does mount a comeback, regardless of how he does it, he may well look back at the 18th hole on Thursday as the low moment literally and figuratively. Already in the midst of a brutal round, he found the fairway with his drive but then cold-topped his second shot right into the bunker known as “Chambers Basement” because it is so deep.
It may come into play for the amateurs who play the course, but not for the pros. At least not for 155 of them on Thursday. Only one found it and had to walk down, down, down to hit his third shot. To be fair, Woods DID beat Rickie Fowler that day and did shoot 76 on Friday. He missed the cut by 11 shots, beating four players in all.
The weekend was filled with drama. Day’s bout with vertigo on Friday was scary and there were moments on Saturday when it appeared unlikely he would finish. Not only did he do so, he birdied four of the last seven holes to tie for the lead by nightfall. The fact that he couldn’t keep up that momentum on Sunday wasn’t surprising. That he hung in the way he did, right to the finish, was inspiring.
Very few golfers inspire awe in the locker room. Woods did for years, but it’s understandable because he’s the second best player in history. McIlroy does too because he is the best driver of the golf ball in the game today.
But Johnson also inspires awe because his talent is breathtaking and yet, now at 31, he still hasn’t lived up to it. Forget the off-course issues, he’s been in position to win majors four times and each time has found a different way to come up short. There was the 82 at Pebble Beach five years ago when he led by three shots after 54 holes. There was the debacle at Whistling Straits that can be blamed, to some degree, on a silly local rule and a rules official who should have reminded Johnson he was in a bunker. Most of the blame though falls on Johnson for not knowing the rule. Then there was the 2-iron that whistled out of bounds on the 14th hole at Royal St. George’s on Sunday four years ago, ending a late charge.
And, forever more, there will be the three putt at the 18th at Chambers Bay. The shame of it is that few people will remember that Johnson hit two extraordinary shots to find himself a little more than 12-feet from an eagle that would have won the championship. But, even after watching Day’s ball roll well past the hole on a similar line, he still let his first putt get away from him. Then, he appeared to rush the birdie putt and, just like that, it was over. It was completely stunning to watch.
Johnson’s meltdown on the last green should not affect that way anyone looks at Spieth’s victory. He recovered from an ugly double-bogey at the 17th hole to birdie 18 and that was the margin of victory. The Open always requires huge mental toughness to win and this one was about as tough as it got.
And, left standing, was a 21-year-old, who will now be the talk of golf from here to St. Andrews. McIlroy won the last two majors of 2014; Spieth the first two of 2015. At this moment, it appears they don’t want to let anyone else in the sport have any fun.
Or at least any major championship trophies. The next few weeks, months and years are going to be fun to watch. So was the week at Chambers Bay.