UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Jordan Spieth stared at the TV in the scoring trailer, wondering if he had thrown it all away.
Only a half hour earlier, it looked like he’d sealed this U.S. Open with a 25-foot slider on 16, a moment so electric that it sent sunburned fans tumbling down the dunes. But now, as Dustin Johnson lined up a 12-foot eagle putt to win, Spieth felt helpless.
“What did I do?” he finally asked his caddie, Michael Greller. “How did I possibly let this happen?”
The simple answer, of course, is that he blew a 6-iron so far right on the 71st hole that he briefly thought it would sail out of bounds. He staggered off the green with a double bogey, and soon his three-shot lead was gone. Though he played two perfect shots to birdie 18, he thought he'd blown the Open and a shot at the Grand Slam.
“It would have definitely stung,” Spieth said. “It would have stung a lot because it was mine. I controlled my destiny. It would have been tough to swallow.”
Except it was Johnson who was reminded of that feeling Sunday.
After rushing his eagle putt past the cup, he yanked the 4-foot comebacker to miss the 18-hole playoff, the latest in a series of major-championship crackups.
The ending was so sudden, so surprising, Spieth and Greller didn’t even know how to react. They looked at the screen in silence. Finally, after what seemed like 10 seconds, Greller rose from his chair and said: “Dude, give me a hug. You did it.”
“I’ve never experienced a feeling like this,” Spieth said Sunday night, glancing at the U.S. Open trophy to his left. “Just total shock.”
The 21-year-old is a self-styled golf historian, but even some of these post-round statistics blew him away:
• He’s the youngest Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.
• The youngest two-time major champion since Gene Sarazen in 1922.
• The sixth player to capture the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year.
• The first since Jones in 1926 to birdie the 72nd hole to win.
“You only get a few moments in your life like this,” he said, “and I recognize that. And to have two (majors) in one year and to still be early in the year, that’s hard to wrap my head around.”
This gripping victory was so different from his romp at the Masters, when he won on talent alone. That week he was flawless, dominant, unrelenting.
He prevailed at Chambers Bay largely because of his patience and toughness, because of his unwavering belief. His second major title revealed less about his skill and more about his character.
“He’s a fighter,” Greller said. “He’s gritty. He’s fiery. He doesn’t give up on any shot. If anything, this week he just validated who I know that he is, which is a world-class player with an unbelievable mind. He’s just a gamer.”
Spieth credited his “winning formula,” but he wasn’t about to reveal trade secrets. All he would concede is that it’s a feeling, a mental attitude, a focus. It allows him to overcome imperfect execution.
“I’d rather not get into it,” he said with a smile, in case his peers were listening.
Hey, whatever works, because Spieth stamped himself as a once-in-a-generation talent and now will head to St. Andrews as one of the biggest stories in all of sports. Ben Hogan is the only player to win the year's three majors, back in 1953.
“The Grand Slam in one year?” asked Spieth’s father, Shawn. “The dream is still alive.”
And it’s not that far-fetched.
For the first time all week, the focus Sunday was on the players and not the most controversial course in U.S. Open history.
Chambers Bay is visually stunning, but it's also deeply flawed. At least two caddies suffered injuries while attempting to navigate the treacherous terrain. Spectators howled about being unable to see and follow the action, though perhaps that was best, because for the first three days all they would have seen were scores of frustrated players.
Wailing about the course and setup is an Open tradition. The difference this year was the frequency and volume of the criticism, even among the leaders, with practically everyone from Spieth to Rory McIlroy to Gary Player to Old Tom Morris weighing in.
Aside from a few qualms with the setup – most notably, the alternating par on the first and 18th holes – the players’ biggest beef was with the “predominantly” fescue greens that also had patches of poa annua. Henrik Stenson compared the bumpy surfaces to “putting on broccoli.” Player slammed the host venue, called it a “tragedy,” and woofed that one of his fellow course designers, Robert Trent Jones Jr., “had to have one leg shorter than the other” to draw up this place.
Were the greens championship quality? Clearly not, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Six temporary greens were used as recently as February, and then the USGA pushed them to the brink too early in Open week, creating an uneven surface. With all of its humps and swales and mounds, Chambers already tested players’ patience because of the inevitable odd bounces and hops; now, regrettably, luck was introduced as a significant factor on the greens.
“We got over it,” Spieth said. “Someone had to hold the trophy. There’s noise around every golf tournament, but someone has to win it. 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.”
A boldfaced champion doesn’t necessarily validate Chambers Bay as a worthy major venue, but the USGA redeemed itself Sunday by setting up the course for pyrotechnics and also playing the difficult 18th as a par 5, not a par 4, as previously intended. It ended up being the stage for the best drama all year.
And once again, it was Johnson on the losing end.
The 30-year-old has long been the most extravagantly gifted player on Tour, a physical freak capable of overwhelming his competition, but his ability to think clearly under pressure has led to a number of high-profile screw-ups.
There was the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he self-immolated during a Sunday 82. There was the PGA at Whistling Straits later that year, where he took a one-shot lead into the 72nd hole, then infamously grounded his club in a bunker and missed the playoff. And then there was the 2011 Open Championship, where late in the final round he sailed a 2-iron out of bounds to hand the title to Darren Clarke.
Even with victories in eight consecutive seasons, the longest such streak on Tour, Johnson has been labeled a player who doesn’t have the mental fortitude to withstand major pressure.
He cracked in another big spot Sunday, and it was his most crushing loss yet.
Johnson played flawlessly on the front side, stuffing eight approach shots within 20 feet and opening up a two-shot lead, but a wayward shot into 10 led to a run of three bogeys in four holes.
Even with all of his miscues and missed opportunities over the last two hours, Johnson still had a chance to win this Open. After Spieth’s double on 17, Johnson ran in an 8-foot birdie putt on the same hole to share the lead. A 353-yard bomb left him only a 5-iron into 18, and he nuked his second shot up the throat of the green and into an area 12 feet above the cup.
His eagle putt missed high, and then his birdie putt missed low, and at long last Johnson and Scott Hoch had something in common.
The crowd was stunned, even conflicted. There was muted applause, sure, but also a few boos. As Johnson stumbled toward his bag, his brother and caddie, Austin, slammed the flag back into the cup.
“This was just an odd deal,” Spieth said. “Very odd.”
“We were numb, really,” Greller said. “Still are.”
The scoring area was somber. Johnson's fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, wiped away tears from behind black aviators. Once Johnson emerged from the trailer, he never broke stride as he grabbed her hand and bounded up the steps of the gold Ford E-350 passenger van. He skipped the trophy presentation and finally was tracked down near the locker room.
“I did everything that I could,” he attempted to explain later. “I tried my damnedest to get it in the hole and I just couldn’t do it.”
Meanwhile, down below on the 18th green, Spieth hoisted the silver trophy, dedicated the win to his dad and local caddie, and looked ahead to St. Andrews, one of his favorite places in the world.
“Can’t win ’em all unless you win the first two,” he said.
Suddenly, the dream doesn’t seem so improbable.