Spieth Holds On In Open Finish for the Ages

On Sunday, Jordan Spieth became the youngest player since 1923 to win the U.S. Open. 'You only get a few moments in your life like this,' he said afterward. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)
On Sunday, Jordan Spieth became the youngest player since 1923 to win the U.S. Open. 'You only get a few moments in your life like this,' he said afterward. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – In the previous 114 U.S. Opens, the 72nd hole has provided plenty of drama.

Bob Jones rolling in a 40-footer to win by two shots in his Grand Slam season of 1930. Ben Hogan’s iconic 1-iron approach in 1950 at Merion to force a playoff that he won, 16 months after a near-fatal automobile accident.

Payne Stewart thrusting his right fist into the misty air at Pinehurst No. 2 after he holed an 18-foot par putt at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999. Tiger Woods forcing a playoff by converting a 12-footer for birdie to set up his victory over Rocco Mediate seven years ago at Torrey Pines.

And who could forget the bizarre finish in 2001 at Southern Hills, where two players – first Stewart Cink, then Retief Goosen – missed 3-footers, the latter for a regulation victory and the former missing out on the 18-hole playoff, won by Goosen over Mark Brooks the next day.

But what transpired on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at first-time venue Chambers Bay arguably could top them all.

Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old wunderkind from Dallas, and the 6,000-plus spectators surrounding the par-5 18th hole watched in shocked disbelief as Dustin Johnson first missed a 12-foot eagle putt to win the championship and then failed to convert the 4-foot comebacker for birdie to force an 18-hole Monday playoff.

Instead of playing extra golf, a stunned Spieth joined Craig Wood, Ben Hogan (twice), Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year. He also became the youngest to win two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922, and he is the youngest U.S. Open champion since Jones won the first of four in 1923 at 21 years, 3 months.

Jones won the Grand Slam – U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur – at the age of 28. Spieth will go for the third leg of the modern Slam next month at the Old Course in St. Andrews (Scotland), where coincidentally, Jones claimed the British Amateur to start his historic run in 1930. 

World No. 2 Spieth, who entered the final round tied for the lead with Johnson, Jason Day and Branden Grace, carded a 1-under 69 for a 72-hole total of 5-under 275.

Johnson (70) and Louis Oostuizen, who followed up a pair of 66s with a 67 that included a run of five consecutive birdies on the inward nine, shared second at 276. Adam Scott, who posted a championship-low 64 on Sunday, and fellow Australian Cameron Smith, 21, joined Grace in a tie for fourth at 277. Day, the sentimental favorite after playing the final 36 holes while dealing with vertigo, struggled to a 74 and tied for ninth at even-par 280.

Four-time major champion and world No. 1 Rory McIlroy carded a 66 and shared ninth with Day and fellow Irishman Shane Lowry.

“It's hard right now. It's hard,” said Spieth, who joined Woods and Johnny Miller as the only players to have won a U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Open. “I'm still amazed that I won, let alone that we weren't playing tomorrow. So for that turnaround right there [and] to watch that happen, I feel for Dustin. But I haven't been able to put anything in perspective yet.”

Johnson has had three previous disappointing finishes in majors, including the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he held the 54-hole lead, but shot a final-round 82. Two months later in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he incurred a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole by unknowingly grounding his club in a bunker, keeping him out of the playoff won by Martin Kaymer over Bubba Watson. He also was in contention in the 2011 British Open, only to hit his second shot out of bounds on the 14th hole and end up sharing second with Phil Mickelson, three shots behind champion Darren Clarke.

“I’m disappointed, but also I’m disappointed that I three-putted the last hole,” said Johnson, a nine-time PGA Tour winner who turns 31 on Monday. “Other than that, I had a damn good week. I’m happy with the way I played. I’m happy with everything in my game right now. I had a chance to win a major again on a Sunday. I thought I handled myself very well.”

The USGA set up Chambers Bay to play 7,384 yards, the shortest of the four rounds, and kept No. 18 a par 5 while making 16 a drivable par 4 at 330 yards, creating the possibility for a dramatic finish.

When 22 golfers post under-par rounds, the second-most for a final round in the championship’s history, and 10 of those are among the top 15 finishers, the final round could be deemed a success.

But nobody on the grounds or watching Fox’s television broadcast could have predicted the ending.

The drama started on 16 when Spieth slithered home a 27-footer for birdie to take a two-stroke lead, while Grace made double bogey after hitting his tee shot out of bounds. Moments later, Spieth hit one of his worst shots of the championship, a blocked 6-iron into high fescue rough on the par-3 17th. It led to a double bogey when he three-putted from 40 feet, his 10th of the week. That dropped him into a tie with Oosthuizen, who had birdied the 18th hole to become the third player in U.S. Open history to shoot a 29 for nine holes. Oosthuizen, who opened with a 77 on Thursday, went from a tie for 135th after Thursday to a share of second by shooting the lowest final 54-hole total in championship history (199).

“The last time I felt that was in 2012 at Augusta,” said Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion. “It was nice being in that spot again. I felt very relaxed. I felt eager to get to the next hole and try and get some birdies going. I wasn’t nervous at all. I’ll take a lot out of this week, especially the last three days the way I played.”

Spieth, playing in the penultimate pairing with Grace, quickly recovered from his 17th-hole gaffe, knocking his second shot on 18 with a fairway metal to 17 feet. His eagle putt stopped 7 inches left of the hole and he tapped in for birdie, eliminating Oosthuizen from contention.

Johnson, however, was playing behind Spieth. After three bogeys in a four-hole stretch to start the inward nine, Johnson stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 17th to 4 feet and converted the birdie. By the time he reached the 18th tee, the scenario was set: an eagle to win and a birdie to force an 18-hole Monday playoff.

The longest driver on the PGA Tour split the fairway with a 357-yard tee shot, and he followed with a 5-iron approach from 247 yards to 12 feet. With fiancé Paulina Gretzky and legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky watching from behind the green, Johnson tried to become the first U.S. Open competitor to win with a 72nd-hole eagle. The putt trickled 4 feet past and Johnson watched the comebacker for birdie burn the left edge.

Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, a Gig Harbor, Wash., resident who was a caddie at Chambers Bay when the course opened eight years ago, celebrated near the scoring trailer. The pair first teamed up in 2011 in the U.S. Junior Amateur at nearby Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash., and they have become an indomitable duo.

“I told him all week that I have nothing but great vibes here, starting with my marriage two years ago up there on the top of the hill,” said Greller, a former sixth-grade teacher. “The best day of my life. Then it really jump-started my caddieing career five years ago, working with Justin Thomas [in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay], and also those good vibes.

“Honestly, coming down the stretch today, I was replaying shots from our second-round match against Scott Strohmeyer. At the time, I thought it was the most dramatic thing ever and then today happened. Ultimately, as far as my local knowledge, it really wasn't worth anything, I didn't think, because Jordan's Jordan. He's one of the best players in the world, and I was just trying to stay out of his way.”

Added Spieth: “I can’t even wrap my head around the finish of today. I mean this is incredible. It will take a little bit to sink in. I didn’t think this would be over and I would be holding the trophy.

“It’s cool to have two legs of the Grand Slam now, and to conquer golf’s hardest test. The fact that we did it is amazing.”

So was that finish.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.