Chris Jones takes a look back at how golf's hottest player won the U.S. Open and discovers what makes him so dangerous this week at St. Andrews and beyond.
Jordan Spieth's last shot of his final practice round before the start of the 2015 U.S. Open wasn't a made putt or a soaring drive, some encouraging finishing note before the real work began. It was a blast out of the sand at No. 18. He had rolled several balls into the bunker to the right of the green -- carefully watching their crooked paths, the better to read the breaks -- and then he had tossed a black Sharpie toward a tough corner of the putting surface. While his playing partners focused their attention on the actual hole, over on the far side of the green, Spieth prepared to shoot for an imaginary one, represented by the Sharpie on the grass. He had invented both his own target and the trouble that stood between him and it. He was playing a game nobody else could see.
The following afternoon at Chambers Bay, Spieth stood on the first tee and hit a 303-yard drive straight down the fairway. After 274 more strokes over four grueling, grinding days, the 21-year-old would win the tournament by a single shot over Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. By Sunday evening, he would be the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923 and, coupled with his Masters win in April, he would be the youngest golfer to win two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922. He would be just the sixth golfer to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year. And he would be the first U.S. Open winner to birdie the 72nd hole to win by 1 shot since Jones in 1926.
"A good start," he would call it.
Jordan Spieth believes success is a function of numbers and the laws that govern them. Maybe it's a coincidence that his caddie, Michael Greller, is a former math teacher, but if it is, it's a happy one. Going into his first major as the winner of a major, Spieth said he had a "secret formula" for claiming more of them. Perhaps not surprisingly, he declined to reveal much about the equation. Fox announcer Curt Menefee caught flak when he said Spieth "doesn't do anything great." His incredulous colleague, Brad Faxon, provided the first of many counters: "He's one of the best at every facet of the game." What Menefee had missed is that for Spieth, golf isn't a game of addition or subtraction, distance and its simple sums. By Spieth's reckoning, winning is a times table. Good compounds like interest. Good multiplies.
Chambers Bay represented division. It was a hellacious golf course, record-long and brown, its spectacular vistas a needed distraction from the ugliness beneath Spieth's feet. It was carved out of a former gravel pit, and it wasn't hard to tell. The fescue wasn't flourishing so much as refusing to die. The bunkers had rocks in them. The greens --Henrik Stenson would later compare the surfaces to broccoli -- were so indistinguishable from the fairways that white dots had been spray-painted onto the grass to delineate one from the other. In places, the location of those white dots seemed as arbitrary as the pin placements, sometimes generous, sometimes ruthless, as though cartography were a profession for guessers. Chambers Bay didn't feel like the setting for greatness. It felt as though the winner would be the man who had the fewest bad things happen to him and who most cleanly escaped the bad things that did.
Spieth had told the assembled reporters, and so he had reminded himself, that victory at Chambers Bay, unlike Augusta, wouldn't measure a golfer's aggressiveness, but his resistance. "The U.S. Open is about as challenging mentally as any tournament in the world," he said. He had failed to qualify for the match-play portion after shooting an 83 at the 2010 U.S. Amateur on the same course, an experience, he said, he had pushed out of his memory bank, through the one-way exit valve the best athletes possess. In the week before the tournament, he got up from watching TV to put on his green jacket; better to remember the things he has done and can do rather than the things he hasn't and can't.
Still, his first score at Chambers Bay other than par was a bogey. It came on No. 6, when he three-putted the challenging green. On No. 8, a 602-yard par 5, he piped 2 perfect shots to give himself a 5-foot eagle chance. He missed it, settling for a tap-in birdie. He smacked his hands together and kicked the air, because who knew how much that stroke would matter? Would that single missed putt make all the difference?
Then Spieth lit up with consecutive birdies on Nos. 11, 12 and 13. For those three holes, everything about him and his game worked in concert. He struck a terrific approach on No. 11, a flawless drive on No. 12, a 17-foot putt on No. 13. Watching Spieth on a roll isn't like watching someone like Bubba Watson in one of his frenzies, red-faced and spectacular. Spieth gears down when he's playing well, becoming ever more methodical and steady. His swing is never gorgeous, but it's as consistent as a beat. He exhibits the smoothness of a hyperfunctional machine.
Entering the tournament, Spieth had played some of his practice rounds with amateurs, including 15-year-old Cole Hammer. "That was really cool, playing with someone I really look up to," Hammer said after. It was easy to forget, watching them together, that the idol was only six years older than the worshipper. Because of what Spieth has accomplished and the way he carries himself, tucked in and thoughtful, he can seem much older than he is. His prematurely expanding forehead has also advanced him. The practiced way he threads his fingers through his thinning hair, trying in vain to fix the one part of him that defies his corrections, is one of the rare things about him that could be described as poignant.
Only when he played nine practice holes with Tiger Woods, just after dawn on the Tuesday before the U.S. Open, had he seemed more truly his age. Woods looked old, morning-eyed and brittle next to Spieth, so loose and unburdened in comparison. There were moments when the younger Tiger spilled out, the remnants of what had once seemed a bottomless vessel of possibility. Tiger decided to experiment with putting from 100 yards away on No. 8 -- yes, yards, not feet -- and after his first effort dived off the green, he pounded his next putt within a dozen feet. But there was an undeniable gap between the current and former prodigies, and by then Woods was already too aware of it.
On the fourth green, Woods had stopped to compare the diabolical putting surface to Plinko, the iconic game on "The Price Is Right," in which chips carom down a pegboard into prize slots. Spieth had returned the observation with a blank stare.
"You know, Plinko," Woods said, and he began gesturing with his hands, mimicking the chip bouncing unpredictably down the board.
Spieth continued staring at Woods, as though he were speaking of something mythical. When he finally blinked, his eyelids might have made a noise.
"You know, "The Price Is Right"? Like, Bob Barker?" Woods said.
Spieth shook his head.
"You don't know who Bob Barker is?" Woods said, now giving up on Spieth and turning to his caddie, Joe LaCava. "How bad is that for us?"
Spieth returned to his morning's work, taking putt after putt, rolling ball after ball across the green, committing each one of its undulations and avenues to a memory that did not include Plinko, or Bob Barker, or "The Price Is Right," or anything else that could be mistaken for a subscription to chance. Of the many differences between Spieth and Woods -- and there is one for every yard Woods would putt across -- perhaps the starkest is that Spieth still believes that his future is up to him.
He finished his opening round with a 2-under 68, in a tie for seventh, 3 shots back of Stenson and Dustin Johnson. "I think if I did it three more times, I'd be in really good position come Sunday," Spieth said, continuing to multiply. Woods shot 80.
The principal conundrum that will soon confront Jordan Spieth: The things that make him successful are the things most threatened by his success. During Masters week, when he was asked about his ability to stay humble if he was wearing a green jacket by the tournament's end, Spieth outlined the dilemma he now faces: "Me speaking about humility is very difficult because that wouldn't be humility." He is a very good golfer, in part, because of his flair for the routine, his passion for the dull, his unchanging commitment to his family and his high school steady. He is one of the few 21-year-olds in America whose greatest fight will be to stay ordinary.
The greens at Chambers Bay provided endless opportunity for invention, but Spieth had said he would use the same two wedges (for chipping) and putter, and the same shot selection, he had always used. (Spieth has used the same Scotty Cameron putter since he was 15. Asked about it after the win, Spieth's father, Shawn, said he was going to order two more of the same model built to the same specifications, just in case something happened to the first.) "I'm just going to take away the complications and try and completely simplify things around the greens," Spieth said. He would be sticking with math and its absolutes, not art and its unknowns.
Starting on the back, he was rewarded on No. 14, when he sank a 15-footer for birdie. On the next hole, he caught the left lip on a 24-foot putt for another birdie to tie Johnson and Stenson at 5 under. And then he dropped an 11-footer on No. 17 to stand alone at the top. At Augusta, Spieth caused a stir among technicians by looking at the hole on his short putts rather than at the ball; now he was draining putts that were long enough to give him a kink in his neck if he tried the same trick.
There's a contradictory feeling that settles in around a golfer in the lead, a combination of weight and lightness, oppression and possibility. Chambers Bay was strange in a lot of ways, but perhaps its most unsettling aspect was the relative absence of galleries. Because of its slopes and treacherous footing, there were long stretches of the course that were inaccessible to fans for most, if not the entire tournament -- the middle of No. 1, the middle of No. 10, the entire length of No. 8. It could feel as though nobody was watching. But there was still a kind of expansion going on around Spieth: a growing army of cameras and reporters, a blimp buzzing overhead, a drone trailing in the sky. It felt the way a presidential campaign feels when a contender becomes the favorite. Divided attention becomes focused, and with it the pressure, and with it, sometimes, the cracks.
On No. 18, Spieth cracked. The hole had been made into a par-4 rather than the par-5 it had been the previous day. With his ever-expanding audience crowding around the tee box, Spieth drove it left into the sand. He then hit the lip on his way out of it, making the mistake of using his 9-iron instead of his wedge, greedy, advancing the ball maybe 14 yards. On his way to his first double of the tournament, he muttered, loud enough for the TV mikes to capture: "This is the dumbest hole I've ever played in my life." Spieth is far from robotic on the course. He's chatty and demonstrative; he talks to his ball more than most golfers, the conversations alternating between commands and pleading. But because Spieth is so careful with his words and actions off-course, because he exudes control, the standards of scandal are as low for him as for anyone on the tour. This is the cost of ordinariness; angels don't have to do much wrong to seem wayward.
After, Spieth was asked about what, for him, qualified as an outburst. "I'm not going to put a smile on and be happy with the way I played the hole," he said. "So I am who I am."
Now comes the question: For how long?
That double on No. 18 had leveled him off, and he seemed a little flat, scuffling rather than soaring toward the end of his round. On No. 8, walking up the long, straight fairway, eerily quiet without spectators, Spieth talked about Woods and his struggles with one of his playing partners, Jason Day. "It's just not going his way right now," Spieth said. The pair marveled at how Woods had once seemed able to bend the entire universe to his will, as though golf courses were movie sets and he were the director. Now he was missing putts an amateur would make.
"Five years ago," Day said, "that would have gone in. And with the Nike logo exactly where it should be."
They kept walking together to the tee on No. 9. It has two tee boxes, and for the second round, the USGA's Mike Davis had chosen to use the farther, elevated one. It's hard to describe what that green looked like from up top. The hole, 237 yards away, seemed surrounded by wolves.
Spieth stepped up, Greller pushing encouraging words into his ear. On every hole, once they had decided on a club and a shot, once they had come to their agreement, Greller almost always said something like, "Get that good picture, bud." Spieth nodded and hit a high, curling 5-iron that cut into the wind. It rolled across the green's sinister back within 8 feet, exactly the way he might have envisioned it would. The gallery roared, and Spieth and Day began their long walk down the hill.
In front of the grandstand, Day collapsed. There was confusion at first. He was on a slope, bending toward the green, and all week, caddies and cameramen had been slipping and falling on the slick yellow grass. A police officer said that Day, too, had slipped and rung his head. Soon it became clear that Day hadn't fallen but gone down, his hands clutched to his eyes. His caddie shouted for medics. Spieth ran to Day and began castigating the photographers who were taking pictures of the frightening scene. It said something about Spieth's rising stature in the game that the photographers listened and lowered their cameras -- imagine photographers not taking pictures of a stricken baseball or football player on the field. But here, they mostly stopped their work, Spieth glaring in the direction of any rogue shutter's click.
Day sat up and announced that he was suffering another bout of vertigo, the mysterious and dizzying symptoms that had plagued him for the past several weeks. He somehow staggered up and finished the hole, blasting out of the bunker he'd found with his tee shot and two-putting with shaky hands for bogey. Then he fell to his hands and knees behind the green before being driven away on a cart.
After all of that, maybe 15 minutes and a medical scare since Spieth had taken his tee shot, he finally settled behind his birdie putt, left hand low, a quick forward press, his familiar mechanics taking precedence in his mind over the drama still unfolding around him.
He sank it.
It's impossible to say that any one shot wins, or more likely loses, something as complicated and interdependent as a golf tournament, this vast matrix of randomness and variables. But Spieth sinking that putt for a second-round 67 -- tying him for the lead with Patrick Reed going into the weekend -- was a defining moment of the U.S. Open. "That was one of the better birdies I've ever made, given all the situation," he said after.
Spieth isn't yet Tiger Woods in his prime, bender of the universe, but for the moment, at least, he has an uncanny ability to shut the rest of the universe out. It's the next best thing.
Golf is an exercise in delaying the inevitable. The game abandons everybody in the end, slowly at first, but always completely, the way water never fails to find its way back to the sea: It rushes away for an errant swing, for a brutal nine-hole stretch, for a few hard weeks, for a lost season, and finally for the rest of what's left of your life. One day the game is just gone to you, and that's when even the best golfers end up talking about golf on TV instead of playing it. Golf will eventually turn everyone foolish enough to pick up a club into some version of Icarus. Good players are separated by how close to the sun they are able to get, and how long they are able to stay there. The all-time greats, in ways that the rest of us can hardly imagine, are able to resist heat and gravity in equal measure, and at the same time. Eventually, though, one or the other will get to them. Golf never loses.
On the fourth green of his third round, Jordan Spieth heard golf's leaving noises. He three-putted from the middle of the green for bogey, twice backing off his short finishing putt to steady himself. Then he hooked his drive on No. 5 into the fescue, flipping the club over his shoulder on his follow-through. He rebounded with a birdie on No. 6, and he hit one of the great shots of his tournament on No. 7. After pushing his drive through the fairway and into the fescue, he had a long, blind, uphill approach to a small target, the sort of shot that would leave most golfers filled with trepidation. Spieth has an almost perverse love for these moments, these tests of his heart rate. He finds thrill in the scramble and grind, satisfaction in trying to create something perfect out of imperfection. Spieth lifted a high, fading shot onto the green, pin high, 23 feet for birdie. On his walk up to the green, it felt as though he'd fought golf and its blessings back into his grasp after their momentary flight.
"It's a feeling. It's a mental attitude. It's a certain focus. It's a certain preparation. But I'd rather not get into it." Jordan Spieth on his 'secret formula' for winning majors
Then Spieth three-putted for another bogey, and he rapped his ball against his putter in barely concealed rage. "Unforced," he said after. "I'll two-putt the majority of the time." Another bogey came on No. 9; then he dropped another stroke on No. 11, after he pushed his drive into a hummock in the middle of the fairway.
He carded five bogeys in eight holes, the sort of wobble that would threaten to shove most golfers into orbit, the way Patrick Reed had spun so quickly into oblivion after his own rocky start that day. Over his last four holes, Spieth muscled his way to four makeable birdie putts. He sank only one of them, on No. 15. He could have easily given himself a 2- or 3- or even 4- or 5-shot lead. Instead, he finished with a 71, locked into a four-way tie with Johnson, Day and Branden Grace, who would be his partner in Sunday's second-last group.
For a less resolute mind, his third round was one of near misses, a string of squandered opportunities to make Sunday a coronation. But Spieth, still playing his own imaginary game, looked at it differently. He got a better picture. He saw 18 holes that might have furnished disaster, a hard round of potential elimination and regret, but he was tied for the lead. He had played nothing like his best golf, he had putted as poorly as he might ever putt, and he was still in first place.
"I think that since we're all tied," Spieth said, "we all have a chance to control our own destiny. It's who plays better tomorrow."
He might have been talking about which of the four leaders would play better than the other three. Or he might have been talking about which one of them would play better on Sunday than he had on Saturday -- which one of them would reassert his dominion over the game on the day when it most threatened to leave him.
For all the meaning and metaphor we might like to see on the golf course, no 18 holes is a battlefield; nobody who has the luxury of playing a game for a living experiences true hardship or hunger anymore. But like a high school hallway after the bell rings, golf can reveal something like bravery, just as it can nose out weakness.
For the first 15 holes of Jordan Spieth's final round, he did not cast a glance at a leaderboard. There were great glowing TV screens rising all over Chambers Bay like billboards, foretelling his fate, and he didn't once look up. It wasn't some happy quirk of geometry or the angle of the sun. The scores were everywhere. Spieth, actively, purposefully, kept his attention from turning toward the same set of numbers that drew the gaze of every other person at Chambers Bay. He had heard the roars from other holes, but he had never sought the answers to the questions they must have raised in his head. He had vowed to look only within.
Then, after he putted for par on No. 15 -- after an opening bogey and two birdies, a steady 1 under for the day -- he had turned to wait for Branden Grace to finish, and there, looming before him, was a leaderboard. He grimaced a little.
He saw for the first time that he and Grace were tied for the lead at 5 under, 2 shots clear. The pressure not to know -- the tension that ignorance presumes -- had been replaced by the pressure of knowing, now without a doubt, that it really was up to him. It was like finding out that every lie he had ever told himself was true.
On the next hole, which was setup as a drivable par 4 for the first time all week, Grace, who had played so easily to that point, locked up and sprayed his tee shot out of bounds. Just one bad swing, and it was all over for him, perhaps never to get this close again. Then Spieth stood on the edge of the same cliff he'd just watched another man go over. He dug his tee into the ground and confidently drove the ball down the middle, just 42 yards short of the hole. His chip wasn't especially good, but he drained a 27-foot putt for birdie. Grace doubled. Spieth was 3 shots free. For the first time all week, he let loose a roar, louder than the gallery.
"That was as animated as I get," he would say after.
Maybe it was that surge of adrenaline that did it. Maybe it was the proximity of his dreams. Whatever it was, for the first time since he'd let No. 18 get inside his head on Friday, he showed vulnerability. His tee shot on No. 17, an easy par-3, a gentle 6-iron, was so far right, he feared that, like Grace, he had found his way out of bounds. The fescue it landed in was almost as bad.
Spieth, conceding bogey, wedged out sideways, leaving 45 feet for par. He lagged within 5 feet. On No. 18, Oosthuizen, on a tremendous surge, birdied to go to 4 under. And then Spieth, unflappable Jordan Spieth, missed his putt for bogey. The crowd made a sound normally reserved for genuine calamity. Spieth's 3-shot lead with two to play had, in only a few desperate minutes, become a tie for the lead with the dumbest hole that he had ever played in his life still to go.
And just when he reached that final tee box, behind the grandstand from No. 17, he heard the roar as Dustin Johnson, giving chase, birdied that hole to become the third man at minus-4.
What happened next, in the time since that lunatic finish unfolded, seems only more unlikely in hindsight. Between Spieth's and Johnson's polar fates, the fact that Johnson would go on to gut-wrenchingly three-putt for par on No. 18 is the more understandable, the more fathomable. Three-putting on those greens, with that pressure, makes sense. Coming up short in that situation makes sense. Spieth's action is the one that defies reason. His is the performance that doesn't add up.
He had won the tournament, and then he had lost it. And then, somehow, sandwiched by other men's birdies, he had mustered a beautiful tee shot, a soft fade that landed 250 yards from the front of the green, on a little upslope, as though he had placed it there. Even more improbable was the shot that came next, a 3-wood to the back ledge of the green. Given the situation and the stakes, it might have qualified as miraculous if Spieth's sense of purpose didn't also make it seem preordained. Two putts later, he had his Jonesian birdie, and soon his second major and everything else that would come with it. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'How in the world did it stay up?'" Spieth said of his second shot. "I guess it was just my day."
That undersells what he did at Chambers Bay. Jordan Spieth has the makings of a historic resistor. His U.S. Open win might not get the credit it will deserve, because of the controversies over the course, and because of the way Johnson lost it. We better remember Jean van de Velde than Paul Lawrie, Tom Watson than Stewart Cink, and Johnson's self-defeat might prove this tournament's more lasting image. The truth is that Spieth had done something moving and incredible in that old gravel pit. He had given us a demonstration of mental strength that ranks among the best athletic displays. There were so many times he might have been pushed into this game's or his psyche's darker recesses, the bunkers that pockmark all of us, and he didn't topple. He didn't win the U.S. Open because of his physical gifts, because of some ineffable grace. He won because he has something impervious in him that, through 72 holes of pressure and test, allowed him to deny any other reality except for the one he wanted to know. He won because of his certainty in his visions.
After, Spieth sat in the interview room, with his Jack Nicklaus Medal around his neck and his U.S. Open Championship Trophy on the table in front of him. He said all the right things, as he almost always does, as though he weren't campaigning for golfing immortality but for elected office. He talked about how much it would have stung if he had lost, and how much he felt for Johnson, this generation's Phil Mickelson, the flawed man made to look all the more doomed by a rival's seeming perfection. Spieth again referred to his "secret formula" for winning majors. "It's a feeling," he said. "It's a mental attitude. It's a certain focus. It's a certain preparation. But I'd rather not get into it." He talked about his good swings and his far less frequent poor ones, like his 6-iron into the rough on No. 17, the shot that might have made this a different story about a different trajectory.
But the most telling thing he said, the moment that most captured Spieth and his potential, came when he was asked about this week's Open Championship, the third leg of the Grand Slam -- the math at its least kind, the pressure even then beginning to ratchet up, the weight of history and expectation set to grow with every second and yard between Chambers Bay and St. Andrews.
"I'm just focused on the Claret Jug now," he said, and that combination of syllables hung in the air in front of him, seeming both impossible and believable at the same time, the contradiction that lies behind the most beautiful magic. Maybe the secret to greatness isn't staying in the present, as we're so often told, but refusing to stay there. Maybe the only way to keep airborne is to look ahead, toward the space you dream to occupy. Maybe Jordan Spieth will achieve things that no golfer has achieved before, exponential and infinite, and we'll find the reason why in retrospect, casting back to that instant when he had already gone blind to the light that bounced off the silver trophy he had won only an hour before, gleaming just a few inches to his left.