UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – OK, so he is not a veteran in this situation. Not by any means. This is only his 10th major start, and just the third time he’s had a realistic chance to win, and he’s less than half the age of some of the prominent players in the field.
But Jordan Spieth enters the final round of the U.S. Open with the confidence that he’s been there, done that, and it happened just 70 days ago.
He has won a major – something that Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and Branden Grace and, well, all but one player (Louis Oosthuizen) within five shots of the lead have not.
“If I can convince myself that I’m free rolling,” Spieth said, “I’ve got one of these and the other guys are trying to chase their first. I know how hard it is to chase your first and close it out.”
Spieth, in a four-way tie for the lead at 4-under 206, says he has a winning formula to nail down majors. He employed it back in April at the Masters, when he stormed out to a big lead, steadied himself when the pack closed in Saturday afternoon, and then pulled away en route to a historic four-shot win.
That was a coronation. This won’t be nearly as straightforward, as predictable. It never is, not on U.S. Open Sunday. There’s no such thing as a formality. Spieth is bracing himself for the hardest golf course of the year, for a five-hour gut check.
Stay true to that winning formula, he says, and then it all boils down to execution, to hitting the shots that are required, to holing the must-make putts.
“Mentally,” he said, “I think I’ll be strong enough to pull it off.”
Mentally, he’ll be tested Sunday in ways he’s never experienced.
Spieth has talked all week – all year, really – about patience on the course. Part of Spieth’s immense appeal is that he is so passionate, so expressive, so emotional. From 300 yards away you can tell whether he hit a great shot or a poor one.
Allowing one bad break, bounce or bobble to fester generally spells doom at the Open. It leads to another mistake, and then another, and then before long it’s all over.
A series of bad hops and bumpy putts threatened to derail his bid for history Saturday at Chambers Bay, but Spieth didn’t break.
A snapshot of his turbulent day:
• After holing 75 feet of putts on his first three holes, his ball on the fourth green settled in a sandy patch 30 feet away. Predictably, his attempt came up woefully short and wide. Bogey.
• Steaming after a three-putt on 7, Spieth hit a tight draw off the tee on the par-5 eighth. He thought it was perfect, just down the left side. Then he walked up the fairway and saw his ball in the right rough, with a clump of grass behind it. “I was appalled,” he said. “This is a joke.” He made a disappointing par.
• On 10, he hooked his tee shot left and signaled to the marshals almost immediately after impact. His ball came to rest on the side of a sandy dune, with no view of the flagstick. Three times he climbed the hill and hopped up and down, trying to find a line off in the distance. With the ball well below his feet, and his stance about two feet wide, he improbably chased his shot to the back of the green, 40 feet away. The ensuing two-putt – including a tricky 4-footer on a crown – was his biggest momentum-saving stroke.
• On 11, which played as an all-the-way-back 530-yard par 4, Spieth hit what he thought was another perfect drive, but his ball caught the tall fescue on the sandy dune in the middle of the fairway, forcing a hack-out. Bogey.
• On 14, he spun his iron after hitting what he thought was a snug approach. The ball nestled closer and closer, 15 feet and then 10 and then five … and then it disappeared over the back of the green. The crowd moaned. Spieth twirled around and swiped at the air, then walked away from the television camera with his right fist covering his mouth. Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and the man largely behind the setup here, was walking with this group. No, he did not smile.
“Got robbed, Jordan!” a fan yelled as Spieth approached the green, but he deftly navigated the steep hill and then lipped in a 6-footer for par. He pumped his fist, twice.
Still, the best putter on the planet had four three-putts Saturday, two of which came after driving the green on a par 4.
“I’m going to need to execute a little bit better,” he said.
But Spieth was at his best late, playing his last seven holes in 1 under to get in the house at minus-4, tied with three others.
It was just what he needed – and the opposite of what transpired during the third round at Augusta, when he made an out-of-nowhere double on 17 and needed a nifty up-and-down from an impossible spot to protect his four-shot cushion.
“I’m more relaxed now,” he said, “because I feel a little more comfortable about the finish of the round.”
Whether he’s willing to embrace the hype or not, Sunday is an important day for Spieth. A hugely important day. Another major win, and he’d be halfway home to the Grand Slam, a feat only five men in history have accomplished. He’d be stamped as a once-in-a-generation player.
“That’s going to have no bearing when I tee it up,” he said. “It’s just going to be how can I tackle Chambers Bay.”
Without getting tackled himself, of course.
Spieth expects a rough night sleep – he’s still tied for the lead in a major, after all – but also that he’ll be a little less anxious, a bit more patient. He knows what to expect on major Sunday. He experienced it two months ago.
“We’re free rolling,” he said. “I’ve already got one of these.”