UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Chambers Bay is roughly 2,800 miles from Augusta National, but it might as well be on another planet.
This is a moonscape, not a cathedral. The greens here are seemingly half fescue and half dirt, not perfectly manicured bentgrass. And the sounds emanating from the sprawling links are grunts, groans and gripes, not roars.
Two wildly different venues, setups, mindsets, vibes, leaderboards, views, greens, logistics, crowds, grasses, climates and styles of play … but this year’s U.S. Open and Masters do have one similarity:
Jordan Spieth is the favorite to win. Again.
The 21-year-old phenom had a healthy five-shot cushion midway through the Masters, and he cruised to a four-shot win and a size-44 jacket. He isn’t running away with this 115th U.S. Open, not yet anyway, because the expectation is that the USGA will crank up the Menace Meter and drive the field back toward level par.
“I know it’s going to get tougher and tougher,” said Spieth, who shares the 36-hole lead at Chambers Bay with Patrick Reed. “My patience level has to be even that much higher.”
Indeed, if he’s to become the sixth player in history to capture the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, Spieth knows he will have to get the job done differently.
At Augusta, he split fairways and knocked down flags and rolled in every putt he saw.
That hasn’t been the case so far at Chambers. Every hole is a grind. Spieth isn’t hitting his driver flush on the center of the face, and his ball-striking was so shaky late Thursday that it sent him to the range for an emergency session. With a brutal weekend setup on deck, he has to put himself in better position off the tee to give himself shorter clubs into the green.
“I’ve got to be a little more methodical,” he said.
Well, Spieth sure looked disciplined Friday.
Starting out on the more scoreable back nine, he birdied Nos. 10, 14, 15 and 17 to grab the solo lead at 6 under. Then came the 18th, which was set up as a 514-yard par 4, much to the players’ chagrin. There is only a small window to land the ball and keep it in the fairway, and Spieth tugged his tee shot left, into a bunker, leading to an ugly double.
“It was a dumb hole today,” he grumbled.
His frustration continued to build on the par-5 first, after overcooking his tee shot into the left rough. Caddie Michael Greller sensed it was time to tell his boss to simmer down.
“Sit back, you’re still very much in this tournament, don’t let this get to you,” Greller told him. “The second something gets to you, you’re in trouble in a U.S. Open.”
On cue, Spieth regained his composure, laid up with a 6-iron and wedged to 13 feet for birdie.
There aren’t many – any? – good birdie opportunities on the inward nine, so Spieth was content with that lone birdie. Patience, remember. He was willing to accept that 3 under was the lowest score he could possibly shoot Friday.
He dropped a shot on the difficult seventh, after racing his downhill birdie putt about 15 feet past the hole, but rebounded with an unlikely birdie on the last.
It was unlikely for a couple of reasons: (1) From the upper tee, the ninth plays as a 237-yard par 3, with a back-right pin and more than 100 feet of elevation change; and (2) Spieth waited out a lengthy delay after a scary incident involving Jason Day.
Day, who has suffered from vertigo-like symptoms since 2010, collapsed to the left of the green after becoming lightheaded. As medical personnel rushed over to treat Day, Spieth stayed close to his friend and barked at photographers to put away their cameras. He said afterward that he simply wanted to “clear the scene” and “let him just rebound from being dizzy.”
After about a 10-minute delay, and after Day splashed out of the bunker and missed a 10-foot par putt on a similar line, Spieth confidently stepped in and drained his 8-footer to shoot 67 and post 5-under 136.
“That was one of the better birdies I’ve ever made given the situation,” he said.
It was suggested to Spieth that this kind of grind-fest suits his style, that the bounce back has almost become the trademark of his game, that with an otherworldly short game he just fights and scraps and wills the ball into the cup.
“It’s definitely something I’ve improved on,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s my trademark, but it’s something that maybe a few years ago may have gotten to me a little bit more.
“But my patience and realization that this golf course is going to test your nerve and it’s how you rebound from it, my knowledge having played in a few (Opens) certainly kicked in there.”
Spieth is back near the top of a major leaderboard, and of course he will now draw on the experiences of his record-breaking week at the Masters – how he handled the late tee times, the media responsibilities, the pressure.
But this is an entirely new challenge. He isn’t the runaway leader. His game isn’t flawless. And he likely needs only to shoot around par the next two days to win.
Doesn’t matter. He’s ready to conquer this type of test, too.