OAKMONT, Pa. — There is no pomp or ceremony for a defending champion at the U.S. Open, no green jacket to wear, no dinner to host. The honor is all in the mind of the man who holds the title, which is huge for Jordan Spieth, especially after the way his 2016 Masters ended. He gets to stride into this week as the guy who won the last Open, not the guy who blew the last major.
“There’s been no festivities. There’s none of that. It just honestly feels like a normal week that I got here early for and I’m preparing maybe harder for,” he said after playing a practice round at Oakmont Country Club Monday with Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Smylie Kaufman.
“I haven’t felt like a defending champion,” Spieth said. He meant it as a positive, meaning that he has no distractions or pressures, as he did while planning the menu for the Masters champions dinner. Then again, it is not as if he has forgotten about winning at Chambers Bay last June. “That can certainly help me if I get into contention.”
This week, he will get to watch highlights of his walk off the final green last year. He will recall the classy congratulations from heartbroken runner-up Dustin Johnson after the latter’s missed short putt in the final hole. Bottom line, Spieth does not have to live on the 12th hole of Augusta National, where his apparent victory this past April plunged and sank in the water. “It was just a mis-hit,” he said. “I was trying to hit it left of the hole, and I hit it a little thin off the heel.
“I moved on,” he said.
He made what he considers a major break away from disappointment by having won the Dean & Deluca Invitational at Colonial in his home state of Texas last month. He — and caddie Michael Greller, whom Spieth always includes in “we” when speaking of his rounds — knocked out doubt. “I think if you’re coming off a recent win, getting back into contention is more of a natural state. If you’re coming off a kind of heartbreaking loss, getting back into contention can be fearful and you’ve just got to push through that fear.”
Yet while he was describing the confidence boost from Colonial last month, his thoughts drifted back to the U.S. Open last year. “Michael kept saying, ‘Listen, you’ve already got a major and these guys don’t. They’re not sure what it’s like to win that first one. You do. You’ve got this.’ ” he said. “That was a nice feeling . . . So I think I’ll be able to try and continue to say that.”
Like the rest of the field, he is deeply respectful of Oakmont, having played 27 holes six weeks ago and 27 more so far this week. “I don’t think anyone is going to be in the red, come 72 holes,” he said, referring to the fact that red numbers mean “under par.” And he is more deeply respectful than ever that 72 holes can feel like a lifetime.
“I think Augusta helped me realize my feelings, not only for my U.S. Open win but also the other side of things,” Spieth said, indicating a new empathy with Johnson. He asserted that Johnson’s three-putt on the 72nd hole didn’t detract from his own Open victory just as his own collapse didn’t detract from Danny Willett’s Masters win.
“Ultimately, when I look back,” the defending champion said, “I don’t remember Dustin’s putt. I remember us winning the U.S. Open.”
The big Short
Wes Short of Austin, Texas, is like every other U.S. Open rookie in that he is thrilled beyond words to be here. He is a little different from the others, though, because he is 52 years old and has been trying to qualify since he was 18. The PGA Tour Champions player shot 59 in one of his two rounds at a sectional qualifier last week in Ohio.
“I think I can still play a little bit so I kept trying to qualify,” he said. “Fortunately, I can write this one off that I at least have played in one U.S. Open.”
Notwithstanding the meltdown at the Masters this year, Jordan Spieth has been an exceptional major player so far in his young career. How he has done in golf’s biggest events:
MAJOR FINISH SCORE
U.S. OpenT 21 (low amateur)+7
U.S. OpenMissed Cut
British OpenT44 +10
British OpenT4 -14
PGA 2 -17