In a Spieth-DJ battle, bet on the kid

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- As Jordan Spieth walked the fairways with Dustin Johnson, he looked a bit like a sixth-grader being escorted by a grown-up counselor at summer camp. Johnson has that effect on a lot of professional golfers. Even before he unleashes his video-game drives, he can make an opponent appear ball-marker small.

Johnson is 6-foot-4 going on 6-7, with a wingspan that seems better suited for the backcourt of the Golden State Warriors than for the backstretch of the Old Course. If The Open were merely a test of raw power and athleticism, especially with Rory McIlroy on the disabled list, no mischievous ghost of St. Andrews past could summon enough bad Road Hole bounces to keep Johnson from winning it.

But golf is not a game usually decided by fast-twitch muscle and low body-fat percentages. If it were, the 31-year-old Johnson would have won the U.S. Open seized last month by the 21-year-old Spieth, whose focus and aim and determination have compensated for his dearth of imposing physical gifts. It has earned him two major victories this year, or two more than Johnson has earned in his career.

So that's why a leaderboard showing Johnson ahead at 7-under-par 65, 2 strokes better than Spieth's first competitive round at St. Andrews, should not be trusted. Johnson's brawn might've beaten Spieth's brain in a five-hour struggle for early control of The Open, but the safer long-term bet from here to Sunday is still the kid from Texas who can become the first golfer not named Ben Hogan to win the first three majors of a season in the Masters era.

The kid from Texas believes he's good enough to ultimately become the first golfer not named Bobby Jones to win a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Done punctuating his 67 with a birdie on the closing hole, Spieth cracked open a window on his competitive soul when asked whether Johnson's size and physicality can represent a daunting proposition for a smaller man (6-1) devoid of the same weaponry.

"I'm sure it can be," Spieth said. "I would imagine it can be for some.

"I've played enough golf with him to where I believe in my skill set that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has. No, I expect when he stands on the tee it's going to be up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee. It just happens to be a little different route."

To walk these 18 holes with Spieth and Johnson and the group's third-wheel hopeful, Hideki Matsuyama, was to witness the striking differences in the American players' styles and to understand how fascinating their playoff duel might've been at Chambers Bay. Johnson is as much a freak of nature as the Old Course itself. He is a tobacco-chewing, loose-limbed slugger from South Carolina who doesn't even pretend to think his way from tee to green; his major-championship body language projects the vibe of a guy playing golf with old fraternity brothers on a buddies trip overseas.

Maybe that approach sheds light on Johnson's fatal three-putt par on the final hole at the U.S. Open, sealed by a rushed, near-gimme miss. And maybe it doesn't. Either way, Johnson's natural ability makes him a dangerous threat.

"If DJ keeps driving it the way he is," Spieth said, "then I'm going to have to play my best golf to have a chance. It's hard to argue with somebody who's splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there's only two par-5s. I don't have that in the bag, so I've got to make up for it with ballstriking."

Ballstriking and a whole lot more. Spieth took some grief for arriving Monday morning at St. Andrews, not-so-fresh off his playoff victory at the John Deere Classic, rather than skipping the nondescript American event and showing up a week early in Scotland to confront the evil little realities of links golf.

And yet at 9:33 a.m., with a Swede named David Lingmerth already atop the leaderboard at 7 under through nine holes, Spieth made The Open's Game 17 the only game in town. Ivor Robson announced him on the first tee in that glorious, high-pitched voice of his, a voice as reassuring to Open fans as Bob Sheppard's was to Yankees fans, and 10 minutes later Spieth was already under par.

He was 2 under at 9:56 a.m., 5 under after seven holes and 6 under after draining a 12-footer at No. 11. He needed only 2 hours, 42 minutes to take a share of the lead.

Johnson was right there with him, overpowering the Old Course and eventually moving ahead of Spieth on the back nine, when the skies darkened and the winds kicked up and the temperature dropped faster than Tiger Woods.

Spieth's caddie, Michael Greller, resorted to wearing a ski cap around the 12th hole. Johnson and Spieth stuffed their hands into their pants pockets during traffic delays on the closing nine, and to pass the time they often engaged in friendly conversation that included Greller and Johnson's caddie and brother, Austin. Spieth said the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open never came up.

Wearing white caps and gray sweaters, Spieth and Johnson looked and acted like teammates rather than opposing forces in the sneaker-war phenomenon (Spieth's Under Armour vs. Johnson's Adidas) and the heart-stopping and heartbreaking (for the slugger) drama that went down at Chambers Bay.

But these are two entirely different people and athletes. Johnson blew a chance at a first major victory at the 2010 PGA Championship by grounding his club in a Whistling Straits bunker that wasn't your average, everyday bunker, this after ignoring posted warnings to all players about such areas around the course. Spieth would've read the warnings and followed the local rules, silly as they might've been.

Johnson got himself suspended twice from the PGA Tour after failing three drug tests, including two for cocaine, according to a report by Golf.com's Michael Bamberger. To date, Spieth stands among the leaders in the clubhouse for the unofficial title of least likely player to embarrass himself or the tour.

On the 13th hole Thursday, Spieth took a detour to a portable toilet before hitting his tee shot, and Johnson decided to stop at the same place after hitting his. He found it locked with his brother inside, and chose to relieve himself in the nearby grass rather than wait. On the Old Course of St. Andrews.

Good luck waiting for the first time Spieth does that.

Truth is, sports fans so often confuse victory with virtue. During the next three days, Johnson can do a ton for his standing on tour, and the way people perceive him, by continuing to make birdies and the kind of par saves he managed on Thursday at Nos. 16 and 17. Johnson might also want to get more honest with himself over his brutal U.S. Open endgame.

"Nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay," Johnson claimed.


"I couldn't control what the ball was doing on the greens there," he said.

Spieth controlled it enough for the two-putt birdie he needed to beat Johnson, and he threw another punch on the final green Thursday that might've left a lasting dent. Under the distant sound of bagpipe music, Spieth followed a bogey out of the bunker on the Road Hole with a lousy drive to the left, then an acceptable recovery approach to 16 feet. With a long procession of weathered Scottish faces watching from the windows and balconies of the Rusacks Hotel and adjacent apartments, Spieth sank the downhill putt for birdie that Johnson would miss from a shorter distance.

The Masters and U.S. Open champ pumped his fist, and soon enough, someone was asking him whether he thought he could beat Johnson.

"Yeah, I think I can," Spieth shot back. "If I didn't, I would go ahead and walk off and take a flight back home tomorrow. ... He's got as much talent or more than anybody. You just have to outplay him."

Spieth didn't get his chance to outplay Johnson in an 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open. But his brain did beat Johnson's brawn by 1 stroke over four days at Chambers Bay, and nothing that just happened on the Old Course suggests that this all-American passion play will have a different ending on this side of the pond.