Sunday, June 28, 2015

What We Learned from the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay: Year of The Spieth #YOTS, We Have a Rivalry, and Miles and Miles of Heart

According to the Chinese calendar, 2015 is the "Year of the Goat."  But on the PGA Tour this season, 2015 has become the "Year of the Spieth." 

Hey, I warned you it was coming.  Two months ago when Jordan Spieth won The Masters, I told you:

And now after a historic U.S. Open victory on Sunday, Spieth has his sights set on a milestone we've never seen in the history of golf.

Here's my debrief of the five biggest stories coming out of the 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. 

Year of The Spieth (#YOTS) 
It's not just because Spieth has won the first two majors of the year.  Or because Spieth can become the first player in history to hold all four majors in the same season with wins at St. Andrews and Whistling Straits (Spieth Slam). 


2015 is the YOTS because of how Spieth is winning.  He's smashing records and stomping his way into the history books in dominant fashion.  A few examples for your consideration:
  • First player to reach 19-under at The Masters
  • Best 36-hole score (14-under), 54-hole score (16-under), and tie for best 72-hole score (18-under) at The Masters
  • Most birdies at The Masters (26)
  • Second youngest player to win The Masters wire-to-wire (Walter Hagan, 1914 U.S. Open)
  • Youngest player to win the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones (1923)
  • Youngest player to win two career majors since Gene Sarazen (1922) 

And oh by the way, Jack Nicklaus needed 13 major appearances before winning his second, the 1963 Masters, at the age of 23.  Tiger Woods needed 18 major appearances before winning his second, the 1999 PGA Championship, also at the age of 23. 

Spieth won number two in his ninth major appearance.  And he's only 21-years old. 


But we don't even need to make comparisons with Jack and Tiger, or century-old record books to see how dominating Spieth has been this year. 

In 2014 Spieth notched eight top-10s in 27 starts.  He's already picked up 10 top-10s in 17 starts this season.  In 2014 Spieth ranked 14th in scoring average.  This season he's ranked first. 

Do you see the pattern emerging?  Spieth just keeps getting better and better. And in the majors so far it hasn't even been close. 


Spieth's made 46 birdies in 144 major championship holes played.  That's a clip of almost 33%, and probably worthy of a "Spieth Emoji Birdie Tracker" on twitter (stay tuned). 


When Dustin Johnson missed his four-footer on No. 18 to seal the victory for Spieth, FOX Sports announcer Curt Menefee said, "Jordan Spieth doesn't do anything great," and you could almost hear viewers' heads simultaneously explode in disbelief. 

Menefee meant (I hope, at least), that Spieth doesn't overpower a course like Tiger Woods did in his prime, and Rory McIlroy does today.  Or that Spieth doesn't routinely hit mind-boggling shots like Phil Mickelson around the greens. 

But what Spieth is doing now is even more impressive.  Spieth summons shots with a magician's wand when they matter most, when they can change the course of a tournament. 

Shots I like to call "hocus pocus, nothing but focus" shots.  Like his chip at the 17th on Masters Sunday.  And this putt on No. 16 to go three up Sunday at Chambers Bay


The betting markets still consider McIlroy to be the favorite to win the Open Championship next month, and the PGA Championship in August. 

But they also considered McIlroy to be the favorite to win the Masters and U.S. Open.  And we saw how that turned out. 

Dustin Johnson didn't Choke 
Did you really think Dustin Johnson was going to make that eagle putt to win his first major?  Or even make that birdie putt to force a Monday playoff? 


At the 2010 U.S. Open, Johnson began the final round with a three-stroke lead, but imploded with a dysfunctional 82.  He finished in a tie for eighth. 

Later that same year at the PGA Championship, Johnson stood on the 18th tee with a final round, one-stroke lead, but was issued a two-stroke penalty when he grounded his club in a bunker.  He finished in a tie for fifth. 

And at the 2011 Open Championship, just two-strokes off the lead in the final round, Johnson picked the wrong club on No. 14, and sailed a two-iron out of bounds taking a double-bogey.  He finished in a tie for second. 

Okay, Johnson clearly isn't clutch.  He's now winless in four appearances in the final pairing of a major championship. 

But let's be real.  Three-putting the 18th at Chambers Bay this weekend was not a meltdown like Pebble Beach.  He didn't fumble away the championship like Whistling Straits.  And there was no puzzling error in judgement like Royal St. Georges. 

I mentioned Friday on CBS Sports Radio - Columbus, the greens were playing like plinko boards and might test the limits of fairness over the weekend.  And a closer look at Johnson's missed birdie putt suggests his ball might have actually bounced off line on the bumpy fescue surface.

The only thing worse than losing, is losing because you choked.  And no one's going to argue that Johnson's not prone to the occasional choke job. 

But there were 74 other players who would have crawled over broken glass to be in Johnson's shoes at the end.  Johnson drove the ball better than anyone all week, at one point hitting 18 consecutive fairways. 


He was one of only two players to shoot par or better in each round of the tournament (Cameron Smith).   And Johnson actually had fewer putts (33) than Spieth (35) in the final round. 

By its very definition, choking implies a sort of breakdown.  It might be an inability to handle the pressure of the moment.  Or underachieving where expectations are high. 

Neither of these things describe Johnson on the final hole.  Both of his missed putts were assertive.  Sometimes you just miss putts because it's the U.S. Open. And sometimes the chips just fall where fate directs them (#YOTS). 

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Rivalry 

Three months ago a rivalry between McIlroy and Spieth was nothing more than wishful thinking.  Then Spieth won The Masters, and the seeds of a budding rivalry took root. 

And now with McIlroy and Spieth holding all four major titles, Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein probably describes the rivalry best:


Listen, no one's saying McIlroy vs. Spieth is Jack vs. Arnold, or Hogan vs. Snead.  They haven't even battled shot-for-shot, heading down the back-9 of a major.  Yet. 

But there is no single definition of rivalry.  You just know it when you see it. Sometimes it's based on animosity and vitriol (Tiger vs. Sergio Garcia).  Other times on geography and proximity (Bubba Watson vs. loud noises on the course, okay, any noises on the course). 

The point is rivalries come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins.  And McIlroy vs. Spieth has emerged as the tastiest flavor on Tour in decades. 

First, they're doing things no one's done in the history of the game.  McIlroy and Spieth are the youngest players to hold down the top two positions in the Official World Golf Ranking since it was introduced in 1986. 

And the last time two players won consecutive majors in the same season, and held all four majors between them?  It's never happened before now. 


The closest scenario came 43 years ago, when Lee Trevino won the 1971 U.S. Open and Open Championship, and Jack won the 1971 PGA Championship and 1972 Masters. 

McIlroy vs. Spieth is also a contrast in styles, which typically creates debate about which approach is better when competitors are otherwise evenly matched. 

McIlroy is a wrecking ball with prodigious power.  A relentless bull that doesn't need a red cape to inflict damage and dominate the field.  Spieth is a surgeon.  A cerebral golfer who dissects a course with artistic flare and imagination. 


They've faced off 17 times in the same event since the 2014 Masters.  McIlroy has four wins, and seven top-5s.  Spieth has three wins, and five top-5s.  McIlroy finished ahead of Spieth nine times.  Spieth finished ahead of McIlroy six times. And two times they finished tied.  How's that for comparable talent? 

McIlroy dismissed the notion of a rivalry with Spieth last month at The Players Championship.  And after his U.S. Open victory last week Spieth said he's still not on McIlroy's level. 

But after falling short in his first two bids to win a major this year, McIlroy will arrive at St. Andrews next month determined to prove he's the No. 1 player in the world.  While Spieth will look to become the first player since Hogan in 1953 to win the first three majors to start a season. 

And therein lies the heart of this rivalry.  McIlroy is the immovable object to Spieth's unstoppable force.  And no one is a bigger threat to each of them, than the other.

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