Monday Scramble: Echoes of a noisy U.S. Open


Jordan Spieth moves a step closer to the Grand Slam, Dustin Johnson squanders another major opportunity, Chambers Bay makes its major debut, Tiger Woods reaches a new low and more in this week’s bleary-eyed edition of the Monday Scramble. 

Only Jordan Spieth could have saved this U.S. Open. He was the perfect winner for an imperfect event.

All of the pre-tournament angst about Chambers Bay turned out to be justified, as the 8-year-old links-style course proved to be the most controversial Open venue in history. If players weren’t kvetching about the quality of the greens, then they took exception to the USGA’s goofy tee boxes or the unfair hole locations cut on crowns. It created a hostile work environment.

That it was Spieth who prevailed only underscores how far he has come in the past 15 months. Last spring he described himself as a “mental midget” on the course, but at golf’s most grueling event, on the most mentally and physically demanding day of the year, he won with toughness and patience and without his best stuff. 

Spieth wasn’t afraid to speak his mind – he sharply criticized the USGA’s decision to play the finishing hole as a par 4, for instance – but he also didn’t let all of the whining affect his game plan. 

When any number of factors could have derailed his bid for history – the greens, the setup, the competition, the grind – he never wavered in his belief. Of the kid’s many gifts, his impenetrable mind might be the most coveted.

1. Have you fully grasped what we’re witnessing here? Spieth isn’t just a 21-year-old phenom. He’s now solidified himself as a once-in-a-generation talent. 

And that's not hyperbole. Take a look at some of the most notable statistics:

  • He’s the sixth to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same season, and the first since Tiger Woods in 2002. 
  • He’s the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.
  • He’s the youngest two-time major winner since Gene Sarazen in 1922. 

2. The ages for the last five major winners: 29-25-25-21-21. It's the first time in the modern era that five consecutive major winners were under the age of 30. Seems we're transitioning rather seamlessly out of the Tiger and Phil Era, no? 

3. Spieth has resisted putting himself in the conversation as Rory McIlroy's chief rival because he doesn't feel as though he has reached Rory's level yet. The world rankings tell a different story. It's those two studs, and everybody else: 

  • 1. Rory: 12.77
  • 2. Spieth: 11.06
  • 3. DJ: 6.97
  • 4. Rose: 6.65
  • 5. Bubba: 6.64

4. The only guy more popular than Spieth in the aftermath of Sunday’s victory? His caddie, Michael Greller.

Much was made of Greller’s homecoming to Chambers Bay, but in truth that storyline was overblown. Greller has looped there maybe 40 times, and not in the past five years. Even then he was carrying the bag for men who couldn’t break 90.  

“If anything,” he said, “I felt more pressure because people thought I knew it so well. I really don’t.”

In the years B.S. – before Spieth – Greller was a sixth-grade math teacher in the area. Reminders of his past life were everywhere. During Monday's practice round, the standard bearer was a former member of the girls’ golf team that Greller used to coach; three days later, it was a former student. On Sunday, the hole captain on No. 10 was Greller’s former principal. Walking down that fairway in the final round, he saw the couple that set him up with his future wife, Ellie.

“It was tough to focus,” he said. “I had to be very intentional about keeping my head down and not really engaging with the fans.”

It was worth it. On the 18th green afterward, he was feted by his friends, his family and his community. A proper homecoming. 

5. Sadly, Dustin Johnson has become known as much for his major meltdowns as his prodigious length. But there was something different about the manner in which he came unraveled Sunday. In his previous near misses, Johnson was undone by poor decision-making. The reason he didn’t win this time was simply poor execution. Johnson was clearly playing the best of any of the four co-leaders – at one point he hit 19 consecutive fairways – but the wide-right miss with a short iron at 10 really seemed to shake his confidence. He was fortunate to even have a chance to win at the end, but it doesn’t make the loss any less tragic.  

6. The updated list of DJ's biggest major heartbreaks:

      1. 2015 U.S. Open: In the span of about two minutes, he went from thinking he was on the verge of winning his first major to hoping to get into the playoff to wondering what the heck just happened. 
      2. 2010 PGA Championship: Everyone remembers the infamous grounding-the-club penalty. Don’t forget he had a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole. 
      3. 2010 U.S. Open: Yes, it was the biggest major lead that he coughed up (three shots), but he self-immolated so quickly that day that by the end of the final round he was an afterthought.
      4. 2011 Open Championship: Only two shots behind Darren Clarke at Royal St. George's, he sailed a 2-iron out of bounds on the 68th hole of the tournament. 

7. If the level of crowd support at Chambers was any indiciation, Jason Day gained a lot of fans last weekend. He became the tournament’s most inspiring story after collapsing near the ninth green Friday following another episode of vertigo. Spells of dizziness have sidelined him in the past, even as recently as last month at the Byron Nelson, and he was a game-time decision for the third round. Starting the day three shots off the lead, he labored around Chambers Bay and its 195 feet of elevation to post one of the best rounds of the day, a 2-under 68 that gave him a share of his first 54-hole major lead. 

The gutsy performance evoked memories of Michael Jordan’s flu (food poisoning) game in the 1997 Finals, and Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in the ’04 postseason, but the most apt comparison was Ken Venturi at the 1964 U.S. Open, when doctors warned him that he’d be risking his life if he continued the 36-hole day in suffocating heat.

It was fitting that on Father’s Day weekend Day quite literally was leaning on longtime caddie and swing coach Colin Swatton, who has become as a father figure for the 27-year-old Australian after his dad passed away from stomach cancer when he was 12. 

Though he was unable to script the Hollywood finish, Day’s T-9 performance was remarkable given his condition. 

8. So who’s mostly to blame for all of the commotion at Chambers: the designer, the superintendent or the USGA? That's an easy call: The blue blazers.

The course is an absolute blast to play under normal conditions, but it is the USGA that stressed the greens to the breaking point and made them virtually unplayable. Why run the greens at 11 ½ or 12 on the Stimpmeter? The Open Championship has slow greens, but no one seems to complain because the ball rolls true. 

The USGA knew the inherent risks of hosting a U.S. Open at a venue with “predominantly” fine fescue that also had approximately 10 percent poa annua. It creates an uneven and bumpy surface, especially late in the day, and trying to hole speedy, downhill putts when the ball doesn’t hold its line is a guessing game. The Open deserves better.

9. On a related note, here's a question that arose last week: Is Mike Davis becoming too big of a factor at the U.S. Open? He’s a very intelligent man, but he was featured as prominently as some of the players. Davis was all the talk before the event, because of his assertion that only those who took an advance trip to study Chambers Bay had a chance to win. (Note: Tony Finau, who played only 26 practice holes, was T-5 heading into the weekend.) And he was undoubtedly the talk during the tournament, too much so, with his daily attempts to keep the players off balance by moving around tee boxes and hole locations and even the pars on certain holes.

Why is all of that necessary? Chambers Bay is plenty challenging, with its length and wild green complexes and elevation changes. And why is Davis so front and center? Shouldn’t the man behind the curtain actually stay there, hidden from view, heard from only when he makes a mistake? Quick: Name the setup man for the Open Championship ... 

10. That said, the USGA should be applauded for the way it set up the golf course Sunday. In all, there were 21 under-par scores, the second-most in a final round in U.S. Open history. The 71.29 scoring average was the lowest ever. 

One of the few advantages to Chambers Bay is that players and fans can hear roars from everywhere. It creates an electric atmosphere. Rory holing that bomb on 13? The lead group heard it on No. 3. Adam Scott’s birdie on the last? Heard that, too. Louie’s hole-out on 14? Spieth’s big birdie on 16? Yep and yep. 

All of which makes us wonder: Why doesn’t the USGA set up courses like this more often? Davis and Co. pride themselves on providing the most thorough examination in championship golf, but too often they’re obsessed with par. These venues are plenty tough without all of the tricks. What's wrong with seeing a few birdies, especially on Sunday?

11. The 2016 U.S. Open is at Oakmont. The last time the Open was held there, in 2007, Angel Cabrera won at 5 over. Prepare for another predictable bludgeoning. 

12. So where does Woods go from here? He made three birdies, beat exactly three players and recorded the worst 36-hole score of his pro career (156). For the past two months he’s talked about swing patterns and baseline shifts, about how this is just short-term suffering for long-term gain, about how he’s been there before. Except no, he hasn’t. Not like this. Every start, it seems, brings another wave of embarrassment, another update to his list of career worsts. He’s nowhere near as close as he seems to suggest.

The calls to fire consultant Chris Como will only get louder now, but it’s worth remembering that Woods has completed only 16 competitive rounds this season. He at least has to play out the string on this lost season – which may have as few as eight rounds remaining – before deciding on his next step. Changing directions now would basically be admitting what the rest of us have known for months now: He is completely and utterly lost.  

Speaking of which ...  

There is no more fitting metaphor for Woods' sad decline than when he disappeared into the 10-foot-deep Chambers basement after – gulp – cold-topping a fairway-wood shot from the middle of the 18th fairway. The cavernous bunker was supposed to be out of play; in four rounds, only one other player trudged in there. 

The hole from which Woods now must climb is even deeper than this: 

This week's award winners ... 

Quiet, Please: The U.S. Open marshal who attempted to silence a moving train because Tiger was about to hit. 

A Friend In Need is a Friend Indeed: Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. When Day collapsed, it was the 21-year-old who shooed away photographers and barked at reporters to put down their phones. Never mind that Spieth showed incredible focus too, stepping in 10 minutes later and burying his birdie putt. 

Master of the Hot Take: Gary Player. Oven mitts are required to watch this fiery and passionate rant by the Black Knight, who said Chambers Bay was a “tragedy” and “devastating” and “the most unpleasant tournament I’ve seen in my life.”  

Bad Look of the Week: Billy Horschel. In a four-hole span Sunday, he faked a tomahawk chop into the green and then swerved his hand down the path of his putt to mimic the bumpiness of the line. Later, he declared that he had “lost respect” for the USGA. And this was a dude who shot 67!

Man Least Likely to Return for a USGA Alumni Event: Joe Goode. The organization’s former managing director of communications, who left his post late last year, tweeted this during the opening round of the Open: “Watching @USOpenGolf on @FoxSports or is it British Open? Perhaps #ChambersBay will mark day when @USGA lost its way. #nobrandidentity”

Worst Shot of the Week: Branden Grace’s 3-wood off 16 tee. That was MILES right of his intended target, at least 50 yards, and a big surprise from a player who had closed out all six of his 54-hole leads on the Euro circuit. 

The Tiger Effect: Louis Oosthuizen. Woods used to intimidate players because he was so clearly superior. Now he's bringing them down with his poor play. Oosthuizen shot 77 in the opening round while fellow playing competitors Woods and Rickie Fowler combined to take 161 strokes. Oosthuizen followed it up with rounds of 66-66-67 and finished one shot back. 

The Last Word: Lee Westwood, who quipped that Chambers Bay would be a fun course to play … if you have a cart, good company and a couple of beers.