Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2015

At Unloved Chambers Bay, DJ’s Latest Major Meltdown

As described on the USGA’s website Chambers Bay Golf Course, the site of this year’s U.S. Open, is a layout of “massive, rolling fairways, towering dunes, undulating greens and unpredictable coastal winds.” By the time Jordan Spieth lifted the Open Trophy last Sunday evening, it seemed that everyone in the field was ready to describe the course using other words, most consisting of four letters. The massive fairways were also stone hard, with the result that perfectly placed drives often rolled into decidedly imperfect locations, and vice versa.

If tee to green Chambers Bay quixotically penalized good shots while sometimes rewarding poor ones, the putting surfaces themselves were at least consistent, but only by being consistently awful. The imported fescue grass, infested with spiky poa annua, produced lumpy and bumpy greens that added an element of randomness to the already challenging task of judging both speed and line across their undulations. One contestant likened work with the flat stick to putting on broccoli, leading Rory McIlroy to point out that broccoli is at least green. The world’s top-ranked golfer suggested cauliflower as a more appropriate food metaphor for the browned-out putting surfaces.

A public links opened just eight years ago, and designed with major championships in mind, the course previously hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur, which was marred by some absurdly high scores during the 36-hole match play portion of the event. That result combined with the widespread disapproval voiced last week by so many of the best players on the planet suggests that at the least Chambers Bay needs some maturation before being awarded another significant tournament. It could also use some changes to become a more fan-friendly venue. From all reports the course was brutally difficult to get around, what with all those towering dunes. There were limited viewing areas on some holes and virtually no spectator access to at least one; especially surprising facts given the intent from before the first shovel was turned to bring big events and the throngs they attract to the Pacific Northwest.

Still someone had to win, and despite its many flaws Chambers Bay managed to produce a worthy champion. Hard off his triumph at the Masters, 21-year old Jordan Spieth made it back-to-back majors, emerging from a four-way tie for the lead after 54 holes to edge Louis Oosthuizen and Dustin Johnson by a single shot. Spieth is the first golfer to capture the first two majors of the year since Tiger Woods in 2002, and just the sixth to ever do so. He’s also five years younger than Woods was in 2002, while the other four players who headed to the Open Championship with a chance at the Grand Slam were all in their 30s.

Statistics like those are the reason Jordan Spieth’s name is now familiar even to the most casual of fans. Years from now, long after the specifics of the 2015 U.S. Open are forgotten, his name will still be in the record books as the champion. But it takes nothing away from Spieth’s accomplishments, his ability, or his enormous promise to point out that more than anything this major championship reminded us that in this game as in every other, the results are as much about losing as winning. In the four rounds of the U.S. Open, the moonscape known as Chambers Bay played from 7,384 to 7,695 yards. That’s more than 30,000 yards of golf over four days, some 17 miles of fairways and greens. At the end of all those miles Jordan Spieth captured the title because Dustin Johnson needed three strokes to cover the final 12 feet.

Early in the final round it looked very much like the day would belong to Johnson, the 9-time PGA Tour winner who turned 32 the day after the tournament ended. Like Spieth he began Sunday tied for the lead. Playing with Jason Day in the final pairing behind Spieth and Branden Grace, Johnson made a pair of front nine birdies to move two clear at the turn. In the Fox Sports booth Joe Buck opined that the golfer had the tournament “by the throat.” It was an observation that merely underscored his and the network’s inexperience at covering golf tournaments, for it ignored both the pressure of the back nine on Sunday afternoon at a major and Johnson’s history at these events.

Bogeys at the 10th and 11th dropped the leader into a three-way tie with Spieth and Grace, and when Johnson added another bogey at the 13th after the other two both birdied the 12th, he was two behind. Grace’s wild tee shot at the par-4 16th landed out-of-bounds, ending his chances. When Spieth birdied the same hole he led by three and appeared to be fully in command. But no sooner had that thought been formed than the Masters champion struck his own poor tee ball at the par-3 17th. By the time Spieth found the cup he had taken five strokes, a double bogey on the short hole. When Johnson birdied it moments later the two were again tied at 4-under par.

So the U.S. Open came down to the 72nd hole, which played as a par-5 reachable in two by most of the field. In the penultimate group, Spieth found the putting surface with his second and two-putted for a birdie to finish at 5-under. Minutes later Johnson’s second also reached the green, coming to a stop just 12 feet above the hole. Stalking the eagle putt that would win his national championship and give him his first major, Johnson reportedly told his brother and caddie Austin that he had dreamt of this moment as a child.

If that account is correct, then the next few moments were a brutal reminder that not all childhood dreams come true. The putt to win never scared the hole, rolling by the left side of the cup and settling four feet past. Johnson’s putt to tie, thus forcing a Monday playoff, was pulled left. It grazed the edge of the hole but was never in danger of falling in. Just like that, Dustin Johnson lost the U.S. Open.

Five Father’s Days ago, Johnson began play in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open with a 3-shot lead. He ballooned to a closing 82, and was a spectator as playing partner Graeme McDowell claimed the Open Trophy. Later that summer he was ready to take part in a three-way playoff at the PGA Championship, until it was determined that he had grounded his club in a fairway bunker on the 18th hole. The resulting two-shot penalty dropped Johnson into a tie for fifth place. One year later he was again in the final pairing at a major, this time at the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. Starting the last round one shot behind eventual winner Darren Clarke, Johnson’s hopes were dashed by a second shot that sailed out-of-bounds on the 14th hole.

With consecutive major triumphs Jordan Spieth rules the golf world at the moment; though it is worth remembering that Rory McIlroy took the final two majors of last season and remains atop the rankings. Thoughts of a long-term rivalry between the equally charismatic and marketable twenty-somethings have sponsors drooling. Coming off his tie for second at Chambers Bay, Dustin Johnson is now ranked 3rd in the world. But until he can put an end to his nightmare Sundays at majors, his story will remain one of what might have been.

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Responses

  1. Very nicely done, as always.
    -Bill


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