MAMARONECK, N.Y. — The style of golf that typically prevails in a U.S. Open is of the methodical variety that efficiently navigates the numerous perils that present themselves. The type of golfer who typically prevails in a U.S. Open is a stoic, a man who commands his tiller with the gritty calm of a seasoned mariner.
That ain’t Jordan Spieth’s style of golf. And it ain’t Jordan Spieth.
In Thursday’s opening round at Winged Foot, Spieth spent the day pitching and rolling, at one point cruising with three straight birdies, at others narrowly avoiding being sunk with two ugly double-bogeys. It was the kind of roller-coaster round that has become all-too-familiar to the 2015 winner, who has slipped to 67th in the world after going winless for more than three years. In the end, it all added up to 73.
“Shooting 3-over at a U.S. Open, feeling like I had no control, it’s not bad,” he said. “Really struggling ball striking. Found a way to kind of grind it out on and around the greens.”
His round one statistics illuminate his shortcomings. On one of the most demanding venues for a U.S. Open, Spieth found just three fairways, continuing the dismal theme of the PGA Tour season that just ended, when he ranked 181st in driving accuracy and 190th in greens in regulation percentage. Afterward, he gave the impression of a young man trying awfully hard to find a bright spot.
“I feel that, even with not having much tee to green, I can somehow still shoot an even or under par round on this course, and that’s incredible self-belief in the grind,” he said.
It’s been three years since Spieth won the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, and five since his magical year when he claimed the Masters and this title at Chambers Bay. Even then, Spieth’s golf was an 18-hole thrill ride rather than an orderly procession from tee to trophy. He could win ugly, as he did from Birkdale’s driving range on his way to that Claret Jug. Now it’s just ugly.
“There’s a lot that’s off. I’m not really sure. If I knew, I’d fix it,” he admitted Thursday. “Standing on a tee at the U.S. Open and not exactly knowing where the ball is going to go is not a great feeling. But I’ll grind it out. I don’t ever give up.”
After his round, Spieth was back on the range with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and caddie Michael Greller in tow.
Though he’s still only 27, there exists a Spieth of then and a Spieth of now. Young Spieth played golf with exuberant abandon, brimming with confidence. Old Spieth is uncertain, paralyzed with technical thoughts before swinging the club and vocal in his agonized self-analysis after seeing the results.
So why not simply forgo the obsession with mechanics and swing with the freedom he once had? “I’d love to, but the second I try and just pick a tree and swing at it, the ball goes pretty far offline,” he said. “There still needs to be focus on the mechanics.”
Starting his ninth U.S. Open—having finished no better than tied 35th since his win—Spieth told himself to hit only draws off the tee. “The only shot you have to hit a fade out here is No. 8 tee, and I played four fade shots today. I played those holes 6-over,” he said with an air of resignation. “Two doubles and two bogeys with the four swings I played fades on. So I was right. The problem was I didn’t stick with that or I’d probably be at even-par worst case right now.”
As it is, Spieth finds himself eight strokes back of early leader Justin Thomas, a distant placing that has become too familiar after opening rounds. “If there’s any tournament where that’s okay, it’s a U.S. Open,” he said. “But it’s just too many first rounds where I’m at least seven back after one. It’s really frustrating.”
Spieth knows from experience that the distance between himself and the lead is far from insurmountable on a golf course that will only get tougher as the week wears on. He began Thursday with the goal of taking the lead and ended it with a more tactical mindset, one focused on holding his ground and hoping for incremental gains. In short, trying to give himself a shot at winning ugly.
“You look at trying to make the cut and finding a softer golf course on a Saturday and just trying to progress the next three days,” he said. “If I can hold myself anywhere around where I’m at right now, I mean, I would say 3-over would likely be in the top ten going into Sunday easily. That’s where I look at it.”