What made the last hour of the U.S. Open so special was not who won, although the statistics of Jordan Spieth’s victory may never be matched in our lifetime (youngest to win the U.S. Open since the legendary Bobby Jones in 1923, the youngest to win two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922, the only player since Tiger to win four pro tournaments since 1940, and the youngest ever to win the first two majors in a row). What made that last hour so special were the multiple, intersecting story lines of players that all had something unique to contribute, but none of them individually had the star power of a Tiger during his prime to dominate or distract from the narrative.
In that final hour three names really stood out — Dustin Johnson (“D.J.”), Jordan Spieth, and Louis Oosthuizen. The most remarkable golf actually belonged to Oosthuizen, whose round was so epic it is almost hard to describe and harder to appreciate if a non-golfer. This is a guy who when teeing up on his final nine holes was nine shots off the lead. He did what golfers only dream of, let alone on a course that was not only difficult but among the most maddening and publicly bemoaned by players ever.
To put Oosthuizen’s round into perspective, we start with the “birdie,” which is when a player completes a hole taking one stroke fewer than the goal, i.e., “par.” There are golfers who go their entire life without a birdie. And really good golfers (non-pros) are happy to get one or two a round. Sometimes pros only make one or two a round. Oosthuizen made six in his last seven holes including a stretch of five in a row, on this course of all courses (see bemoaning above), on his final nine holes of the final day of one of golf’s biggest tournaments, including one on the last hole, which, as was the case all day for him, he had to earn — no super long hitting setting up a seemingly guaranteed birdies the way Tiger, Phil, Bubba, and D.J. have made viewers almost accustomed.
Being initially so far behind in score and playing ahead of the two groups with which the lead was held all day, Oosthuizen’s quiet brilliance might have gone unnoticed had it not been for that last hole. After stringing together the aforementioned five straight birdies, he was standing on the tee of 18th now only two shots off the lead, thanks to some stumbling by the leaders. By the time Oosthuizen finished the 18th, our two leaders had dropped back even further, and with that birdie 4 on the on the par 5 last hole Oosthuizen was now tied for the lead and in the enviable position of being finished. In his final nine holes, he went from nine shots back to one that needed to be beat. It’s hard to ask for more as a viewer.
D.J. and Jordan also played their parts to perfection. Entering his final nine holes D.J., enjoyed a two shot lead and was playing seemingly untouchable golf. But as we entered that final hour, we saw D.J., go from two shots up to two shots back. There were no major mistakes — a few good putts that didn’t find the bottom of hole. Yet, these minor misses arguably telegraphed the gut wrenching finish we witnessed during that final stretch.
As mentioned, D.J. didn’t do anything wrong when he bogeyed three out of four holes early into his final nine holes. The ball just didn’t go in the hole. That happens a lot in golf. Three makable puts. Three near misses.
Nothing in golf is crueler than traveling hundreds of yards in two strokes only to then take more than that on a surface measured in feet. And, nothing is crueler on the green than short putts. The putting stroke shares only inches in common with the swing used with one’s thirteen other clubs. And the tiniest of undesired and unintended movements during the stroke means the difference between the sound of relief and the groans of anguish from ball passing just by but not falling into the cup. The sounds of anguish are almost guaranteed given the putting stroke’s reliance on muscles prone to high degrees of variability in a no stress environment. Imagine these same muscles in an environment where emotions are running so high one can hardly think, let alone think straight.
Alas the greens are the least interesting to watch as a spectator and make for rarely enjoyable highlights without the context of the shots that preceded them. But, what happens on the green has an outsized impact on everything that happens next. A missed put is not simply an additional stroke on the score card. Missed putts have a bat phone to the brain’s confidence center and just one missed putt is often the catalyst for not just future missed putts but all sorts of distracted thinking and frustration laced swings known to wreak havoc to players novice and elite.
All of which sets the stage for D.J. and the 18th. After three misses that for mortals would qualify as impossibly infuriating and confidence questioning, D.J. makes a tremendous birdie on the very difficult 17th hold. This means he enters the 18th tied for the lead. Up on the tee he has no way to know that Jordan Spieth is on the green putting for eagle (the term used to describe a potential score two shots under par). Despite the stress and pressure, D.J. hits a fantastic tee shot. By the time he arrives at his ball, though, he has gone from tied to one shot behind Jordan who two putted for a birdie and the outright lead.
In a superhuman display of talent under pressure, D.J. knocks his second shot on the green, leaving himself an even shorter putt for eagle (the 18th is a par 5) than Jordan had. All of the sudden, D.J. has gone from two shots up to two shots back to tied to one shot back to having a real chance to win the tournament. The collective minds of those watching flash back to other last hole victories, of the ball dropping, and mass celebration erupting as a result of golfer’s dreams everywhere realized. We picture the usually stoic D.J. showing us his version of the fist pump, hat toss, or spread eagle jump. In the back of our minds, we have already prepared ourselves for 18 hole playoff that would happen if he simply two putts for birdie.
In all of our imagining of D.J.’s final put or putts, nowhere did we picture seeing a slippery first putt run five feet by, leaving a slightly uphill curving devil in not just length but putting surface condition. All of the sudden the inevitable tie becomes slightly less inevitable. And as D.J. sets up, is it our imagination or his routine a touch rushed? Memories of holes not long past enter our minds, perhaps even probably his. And before we are prepared, the tying putt slides by. It is over. Jordan Spieth has won. D.J. finishes one behind in a tie for second but leaving a stunned crowd and shocked fans worldwide. No winning putt. No tying putt. Just a three putt from a length just over twice his own height in front of millions, readily available not just in mental replay but digital. All of that work, decades of preparation, his for the taking. Gone in mere seconds. Never to be just like that again.
The player who is probably more upset than any is Patrick Reed. He was tied for the lead at the start of this final four holes of greatness. A very wayward tee shot on 15 had him entering 16 two shots off the lead. Near misses on the putting green meant he stayed their and was not a factor in the final hour’s drama. While so close — he was literally tied for the lead on the final four holes of the final day on one of golf’s greatest stages — no one but him will most likely remember just how close he came. And because no one was considering him as a contender, no one was really talking about him when he dropped behind in that last leg.
For D.J. this is the second near miss in a U.S. Open due to what can perhaps best be described as brain farts. But he has shown he can get there and has the game to win a major. The far harder scenario is when one may never get that close again. In cases like this a pressure laden brain fart could fester and hinder what talent suggests will be a successful tenure on tour. That is far more insidious than knowing you have what it takes but not converting when having the opportunity.
The problem here is that everyone three putts. In fact every single pro three putted at least once on this crazy course. Only one person though three putted on the last hole of the last day where a one-putt meant victory and a two-putt meant a tie for first. That is what makes this situation and golf so unique. It is not a lack of skill that caused this to happen. It is something else, something 100% situational.
While pro golfers putt in competition roughly 130 times per tournament, they have a first putt on the last hole only four times per tournament. And even though there are some forty plus tournaments yearly, the U.S. Open happens only once per year. That means any player has only one chance to put on the last hole of the last day. And the odds of playing in the last group and having that final putt be a chance to win (and tie with a two putt) will come around zero times for the vast majority of professional golfers. That is why Patrick Reed could justifiably feel the most let down, because the odds of being tied for the lead on the last day with four holes to play is not that much greater.
As for D.J., what makes his particular three putt so challenging to overcome is that he did not get beat by another player. Compare this to the other player to come in second, Oosthuizen. His second place will feel far sweeter because he wasn’t even supposed to be in contention. You could argue that he was outplayed, but regardless, when it comes to D.J. he beat himself, which like the existence of short putts, is another unique cruelty to golf.
What happens next will be an amazing study in fortitude, will, and leadership. D.J. appears to be the type of player who will shrug this off and win again. He is such a talent and, my guess, wired mentally in a way where he both won’t dwell and won’t become a trivia fact. His is a devastating loss and no doubt the butt of jokes for a long time, but at least by being able to contend again, he won’t have the weight on his shoulders the way a series ended error in a Game 7 of a World Series does.
I hope that we will have the opportunity to hear how D.J. speaks to himself. Does he reinforce how great he played, how amazing the experience was? Does he genuinely feel as though another chance will exist, or does he punish himself for a mistake he would never normally make? Does he replay the scene countless times, becoming increasingly tense and angry? He may do all, but his ability to focus on how well his training paid off to get him there, on the great birdie on 17, the absolute clutch shots that put him in the drivers seat on 18, those are the things that will dictate how he plays ongoing.
Like a well funded startup, D.J. has to play in the future as though it will all work out, as though he has not just the talent but plenty of time to achieve the goal. And he truly has to believe it will happen, that this was but a blip. Even if he doesn’t win a Major, he has to believe he will and then train like he will. He has to continue to put himself in position, and to use this experience to create an even more unflappable routine he can employ when in future pressure-filled situations. He has to know that he can use this become dominant. He has to view all of this not as a confidence breaker but a confidence builder — let it provide him clarity on where to focus, where to improve. His job as a golfer is not just the physical game but once again always believe he will improve and that he is not any one single putt or set of scores. That’s all of our jobs though. And, if someone can overcome this on one of the most public of stages, we should know we can do it too.