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Halfway Home – U.S. Open at Chambers Bay

When first you see the stark greys and browns which carpet the land that is now Chambers Bay GC, you could be forgiven for thinking that time had transported you back to the Scottish Highlands 400 years ago.

Which is precisely the mandate that course architect Robert Trent Jones II had been given when being engaged to build what has become an almost instant masterpiece. Jones was also charged to build a course that would be playable for golfers of all skill levels, but could then be morphed into a Major Championship venue for the greatest players in the world. Jones has deftly succeeded on both of those counts.

Chambers Bay is built on the site of a former sand and gravel mine next to the Puget Sound. The course is framed with backdrops to the west with the towering Olympic Mountains and the majestic Mount Rainier to the east.

There is a working railway line in which 60 trains pass each day that hugs the borders of the course’s finishing quartet of holes. Jones and his team also left intact ruined buildings dating back to the mining days to speckle the landscape with a sense of history and curiosity.

The course has more elevation changes than any other course in U.S. Open history and the widest fairways in the preceding 114 years of America’s oldest Major Championship. Each hole can be changed into something completely different for the following days’ play as there is a host of teeing areas to choose from.

In Thursday’s first round the opening hole was played a long par 4 (508 yards) and the last hole was played as reachable par-5. The USGA flip-flopped those two holes to be the exact opposite for Friday’s second round. There are par-3’s that can be a sand wedge one day and a 3-iron the next. There are hills and valleys and burns that will escort an errant shot 100 yards off its intended line.

The greens are treacherous when putting above the hole as the afternoon poa annua seed wreaks havoc with a ball that would usually roll purely. Each green has subtle and not so subtle bowls and spines making the golfer use their most vivid imagination. It was not uncommon to see a player with a 20 foot putt aiming directly away from the hole in the hopes of traversing a ridge that would carry his ball back to its target.

And it would be the greens that would earn the wrath and contempt of the players as they progressively deteriorated. After criticizing the greens after his second round, Sergio Garcia followed up with this quote after Saturday’s round: “To me, it’s like playing the NBA Finals on a court with holes and slopes and no backboards.” Henrik Stenson likened the greens to putting on broccoli while Rory McIlroy said they were more like cauliflower because of their lack of color.

And then there is the grey sand that dominates the eye on every hole. The sand is leftover from the days when the area was a sand and gravel quarry and adds to the distinct uniqueness that is Chambers Bay. Littered randomly in the “grassy” waste areas that surround the gravel and sand are the fescue plants waiting to capture golf balls.

The great equalizer of conditions like this is that each player is playing in the same conditions. The one outcome you can predict with certainty is that the winner on Sunday night will be the player that embraced the challenges rather than being defeated by them.

27-year old Australian Jason Day has had close calls in Major Championships several times including runner-up finishes in both the 2011 and 2013 U.S. Opens. Day has been battling with Benign Positional Vertigo for the last year. He has been to several specialists and hospitals without anybody being able to give him a definitive answer/cure.

As he was walking down the hill on his last hole in Friday’s round, Day suddenly fell to the ground as the Vertigo overcame him. After lying on the ground for several minutes a shaken and groggy Day finished the hole and was 2-under par for the opening two days. His return to the course on Saturday would be very much in doubt.

After 36 holes, two of America’s finest young players were tied for the lead at 5-under par, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth with another U.S. star Dustin Johnson a further stroke back with South Africa’s, Branden Grace. 27 year old Grace may not be a recognized name in the U.S., but he is a very accomplished player having won 9 times around the world including 6 victories on the European Tour.

All eyes were on Day as he walked to the first tee on Saturday afternoon. Appearing quasi robotic in his movements to avoid any sudden changes in depth perception and staring straight ahead, Day stepped gingerly to the first tee and then blasted a superb drive some 330 yards down the fairway. Three early bogies though would seem to have made Day an asterisk in the story of Chambers Bay.

The two leaders were headed in opposite directions. Spieth birdied the 2nd and 3rd holes to take a 3-shot lead over the field while a double bogey-6 on the 2nd spelled doom for Reed. Spieth played more erratically than is his style, but managed to salvage a 1-over par, 71 that left him at 4-under par. Reed would continue to fade out of contention finishing his day with a 6-over par, 76.

Spieth was joined for the overnight lead by both Johnson and Grace who matched par with well-earned 70’s. There would be one more player making a quartet of leaders; Jason Day. Day played his final 13 holes in a scintillating 5-under par in a performance that had the huge Washington crowds cheering wildly.

Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, is much more than just a baggage handler for the Aussie. Swatton is also Day’s coach (the only one he has ever had), mentor, and best friend who was with Day every step of the way in his heroic round. Swatton told reporters after the round that Day almost had to withdraw several times during the back-9 because he felt so badly. Somehow, he summoned the will to continue and play unbelievable golf. It will be remembered as one of the most courageous rounds of golf ever played.

Courage is one ingredient needed to win the U.S, Open, but certainly not the only one. Others include; resiliency, determination, luck and skill.

The four leaders had a 3 shot lead over their nearest pursuers so it seemed likely that the champion would be one of these men.

On the front-9 of Sunday’s final round, Dustin Johnson played flawless golf, carding a 2-under par, 33, that could have been much lower had a few more short puts rolled in. Johnson led by two over Spieth and Grace, with Day a further stroke behind. A double bogey-6 on the par 4, 13th would end Day’s chances, but he won a great many new fans with his courage and tenacity this week.

Johnson then faltered with 3 bogies in his next 4 holes to drop back to 3-under par for the tournament. Grace and Spieth played that stretch of holes in 1-under, so as they arrived at the tee at the drivable par-4, 16th, they were co-leaders at 5-under par, now 2 ahead of Johnson.

Grace would then make a swing that he will remember for a long time. His normal flowing motion became rushed and out of sequence as he hit his 3-wood 40 yards to the right and out of bounds. Spieth drove to the front of the green and got up and down for a birdie-3 and with it, a 3-shot lead with just two holes to play.

But this is the U.S. Open where things (see the last hole) can change so quickly. Spieth’s 6-iron from the tee of the par-3 17th was the worst shot that he hit all week and lay deep in the uninviting fescue. A safety first blast out of the rough to 35 feet from the hole and 3 putts later, resulted in a double bogey 5 for the 21-year old Spieth.

Playing with Day in the two-some behind Spieth, Johnson’s perfectly struck 7 iron rolled to 3 feet from the hole. His birdie-2 now meant that he and Spieth were tied at 4-under par with the par 5, 18th to play.

Spieth hit two solid shots onto the last hole setting up a 20-foot putt for an eagle-3. His first putt drifted just left of the hole and he tapped-in for his birdie-4 and for the time being a 1-shot cushion over Johnson.

Johnson had driven the ball brilliantly all week and his tee shot on #18 was no exception. His second shot was even better and ended up 12 feet from the hole with a putt to win the U.S. Open. Johnson’s first putt slid by the left of the cup and ran 3 feet past the hole. He would miss that short putt and finish at 4-under par and a stroke behind Spieth. It was a heartbreaking end for Johnson who has now come so close to winning so many Majors.

Spieth was almost in shock as the reality of his victory started to sink in. In 5 minutes he had run the gamut of “I just lost the Open”, to “I have to get ready for an 18-hole play-off tomorrow”, to “I just won the U.S. Open”. Things can change so quickly in a U.S. Open.

Spieth becomes the youngest player since Gene Sarazen, in 1922, to win the first two Majors of the year.

It is the mark of all great Champions that they are able to win tournaments even when they are not playing their best golf. Tthis week at Chambers Bay proves that Spieth has the ability to do that. This victory moves him closer to World #1, Rory McIlroy, and he has the first two legs of the Grand Slam (the Open Championship and the PGA Championship complete the Majors).

After all of the controversy about Chambers Bay and the USGA this week, this quote from Australian Geoff Ogilvy (the 2006 U.S. Open Champion) eloquently sums things up: “You have to move the ball both ways and you have to use your brain, which is a rare thing in modern golf and something we’re not very good at, I don’t think. It’s going to be a class act of a player who wins, and really that’s all you want.”

Spieth was all of those things and more.