UNIVERSITY PLACE — So many new frontiers were crossed in this U.S. Open that the record set in the conclusion Sunday was only a modest surprise: Most times for a tournament outcome falling off a cliff, and climbing back up.
First man to the top was Jordan Spieth, who is young of leg, stout of heart and local of bag — essentials in surviving Torture Chambers Bay.
His caddy, Michael Greller, a former University Place teacher who lives in Gig Harbor, was married on the course two years ago. Sunday, he and Spieth were married forever in local and national sports history — at 21, the youngest man since Bobby Jones in 1923 to win the Open, and perhaps the most complete athlete at 21 that the marketplace has seen since another Kid, Ken Griffey Jr.
A caddy’s knowledge has no metric, but it stands to reason that at least one stroke across these four days of controversy, elation and despair must have had a hometown edge. One stroke was the difference between Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen in one of the most preposterous half-hours to close a major golf tourney.
After Johnson three-putted from 12 feet on the 18th green, the final gaffe in a string by the contenders that will put him with Bill Buckner in the pantheon of sports pratfalls, Spieth offered a post-match observation.
“It was mine to lose and mine to win on those last two holes,” he said. “It just came down to him being the last one to finish. I was able to have one hole (18) to rebound from my mistakes (a double bogey at 17) and he wasn’t able to get that hole afterwards.”
Johnson ran out of tournament. Faced with a 12-foot eagle opportunity for the outright win, or a four-foot birdie to force an 18-hole playoff Monday, Johnson managed neither. He had a great chance to win and came up a yard short.
What is it with this marketplace and that theme?
Regardless, Spieth and Greller managed to get some privacy just off the 18th to watch Johnson implode on TV, as Spieth appeared to do at 17 and fellow contender Branden Grace did at 16, when he sent his tee shot nearly to the railroad tracks that run along Puget Sound.
“I closed the door and we went away from any cameras when it was happening,” Spieth said. “He just said, ‘Dude, be positive.’ I was sitting there going, ‘I think Dustin is going to make this. What did I do (at 17)? How did I possibly let this happen?’
“He said, ‘Be positive. You just never know.’ I was sitting with him when that second putt missed. I just — my eyes were wide, looking at the TV screen and he was silent as well. We didn’t really know what to do. Then we got up. He said, ‘Dude, give me a hug, you did it.’ It was really cool. It’s amazing.”
The bro-hug represents what good caddies are for — less about distance and club and more about focus, patience and emotional support.
“I didn’t have full control of the golf ball,” Spieth explained of his stumbles on the way to a 69. “When that happens, I start thinking about different things in my swing. (Greller said) ‘Just paint a picture, zero in on the target. Don’t worry about your swing, the ball will go there as long as you focus on it.’
“That’s how it works. He was reiterating that today and yesterday. That’s what we were focusing on is seeing the ball flight, seeing it land, understanding where it’s going to roll to.”
The intense connection between the pair apparently is important. These are two smart, cool cats, enough apart in age (Greller is 37) that the mentorship is understood, but not so much that there is a generational gulf.
As Chambers Bay staggered one contender after another — whether by design or greens malfeasance is a conversation for another day — Spieth and Greller stood up to the predations better than anyone.
“(Greller) kept saying, ‘We’ve done this before, and they haven’t,” Spieth said. He was right — they won the Masters. Now they’ve won the U.S. Open. Only six other golfers can say that in the same year, and all of them are Hall of Famers –Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951, 1953), Arnold Palmer (1960) and Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Tiger Woods (2002).
The Open coming to the Northwest for the first time was history. So was the course debut on the national stage — the first new course introduced to the Open since Minnesota’s Hazeltine in 1970.
Spieth, and his Robin, Greller, made their own history, surviving jaw-dropping twists on an eye-popping course to become instant international celebrities. They will be feted at the next major, the Open at St. Andrews in the UK, in July.
Set aside the caterwauling about the course for a moment and consider the good fortune to having been witness to a star going supernova.
“I can’t seem,” Spieth said, “to wrap my head around the finish of today.”
No one else can either. But we’ll be happy to talk about it for years, dudes.