Spieth Accepts – If Not Embraces – Oakmont’s Challenge

Jordan Spieth knows how valuable pars will be at Oakmont this week. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)
Jordan Spieth knows how valuable pars will be at Oakmont this week. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – For the second major championship in a row, Jordan Spieth comes in as the defending champion. That’s an undisputable fact after his nail-biting one-stroke victory in last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.

But the feeling he has as he prepares for the 116th U.S. Open is very different than two months ago when he showed up at Augusta National Golf Club as the reigning Masters champion and was feted as the guest of honor at the annual Champions Dinner.

Different, however, is actually better. The young Texan even called it “nice.”

“I haven't felt like a defending champion,” the No. 2 player in the world said Monday at Oakmont Country Club. “Honestly, it's felt very … there's been no festivities. There's none of that. It just honestly feels like a normal week that I got here earlier for, and I'm preparing maybe harder for. … It really feels like a normal event, which is nice.”

Of course, this week’s challenge will be anything but normal, and Spieth knows it as well as anyone in the 156-player field. A U.S. Open is a tough test, and a U.S. Open at Oakmont has the reputation, rightfully earned, of being the ultimate test for this championship. While eight players finished under par last year at Chambers Bay, only eight under-par rounds were recorded in the entire 2007 U.S. Open here – two each day.

Spieth, 22, doesn’t figure the math will change much when the championship begins Thursday. He saw the course in more benign condition last month when it was soft from several days of rain.

It’s markedly more arduous now. The intrinsic challenge of Oakmont’s punishing design is accentuated by greens that are much firmer and faster and by rough that is plentiful. Oakmont’s teeth have been sharpened.

“Yeah, when we played six weeks ago, they had come off maybe four straight days of pretty heavy rain so it was softer and a bit slower than I think it normally even is for the members,” Spieth said of the famously demanding greens. “So it's faster than it was then by probably a couple feet.

“How do I compare them to Augusta? Pretty similar. Yeah, you have a lot of similar putts from midrange to short range where you've got to use a lot of feel, and it's very much speed-based and really just have to be careful. You can't let your mind slip on these greens for one moment, or else you're going to be left with possibly a 10- to 15-footer on the next putt, if not worse. So really have to be cautious of it.”

Angel Cabrera won the 2007 championship at 5 over par. Spieth’s assessment is that a similar outcome is likely this week.

“I played a full round yesterday, and I played nine holes today. I thought, with the wind yesterday, I would have signed probably for somewhere around 75, 76 and shaken everyone's hand and said, I'm going to go back and have a beer after that round,” he joked. “Like I said, six weeks ago, I said I'd sign for even par. I don't think anyone's going to be in the red come 72 holes. So it will be a challenge, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.”

Looking backward, just because Spieth doesn’t feel like the defending champion doesn’t mean the two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champ hasn’t enjoyed the distinction the last 12 months. And he is the only player this week with  the chance to win two in a row, a feat last achieved by Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

“I guess the easiest way to put it, it has been a tremendous honor for me,” said Spieth. “I was fortunate enough to win a couple of USGA championships as a junior, and to win the ultimate one, the highest honor in the USGA, has been fantastic.

“I reflected on it as we conquered the hardest test in golf. That takes place once a year, and it's at one of the hardest venues this year.

“Winning a U.S. Open is a different experience than winning at any other venue. You have to have the patience for two rounds each round.”

He would know. He is the defending champion.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.