Two contrasting stars and one memorable duel in Long Island

August 28, 2017

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y.—Did you see it, people? They played the U.S. Open in late August this year! They played the U.S. Open on a tree-lined Long Island course, with lush rough, big oval country-club bunkers and the smoothest, fastest greens you ever saw, on a course new to major-championship golf called Glen Oaks, a green oasis smack-dab in the middle of Nassau County exurbia.

As Donald Trump likes to say — and it’s always a good move to quote Donald Trump these days — “if the best golfers are playing great golf on your golf course, it says a lot about your course.” He started saying that when Jordan Spieth won the USGA boys’ title at Trump Bedminster in 2009. That sage observation was proved true again last week, when the boys in their Tourwear gathered here to play in the national championship.

Yes fine, OK: the event was actually the first of the four FedEx Cup playoff events, for a tournament called the Northern Trust Open. Northern Trust is not a Lake Wobegone motto. It’s an international bank that manages about $1 trillion. When Glen Oaks was named as the host of this event, a couple years ago, it was called The Barclays, another international bank. The golfers are trained to show appreciation for the sponsors, but if you’re looking for sentimental attachment you’re asking for too much. What they knew was that the Sunday-night winner was going to get $1.6 million, direct deposit, with no chance that the check would bounce.

Golf, like life its own self, guarantees nothing, but at High Noon on Sunday, it seemed like a pretty good bet that the winner was going to be Jordan Spieth, and if it were not he than it would be his final-round playing partner, Dustin Johnson. Spieth had a three-shot lead over Johnson, and Johnson had a two-lead over a bunch of guys. (Paul Casey, Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar.) Yes, of course, somebody could go crazy and shoot 63 on the par-70 course and win the thing from the cool comfort of the clubhouse. (A classic, post-modern series of cement cubes that George Jetson of Orbit City would have been proud to call home.) But such a big move did not seem likely.

The final twosome was so appealing, with two of the modern game’s greatest heavyweights, that CBS Sports sent out not one but two of its leading foot soldiers to describe the action to those among us not lucky enough to be on-campus. There they were, traipsing after Mssrs. Spieth and Johnson, and their faithful bagmen, Michael Greller and Austin Johnson, DJ’s kid brother.

Given the immense wealth and success both players have had, you could say they were playing for house money. But they weren’t. For one thing, at the real U.S. Open in 2015, at Chambers Bay, Johnson’s three-putt on the bumpy final green was the gift that allowed Spieth to win his second major title. (He now has, as every schoolchild knows, three: the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, and this year’s British Open.) Before the Masters, Johnson looked like he might just saunter through this golf season and collect all four majors, just for the hell of it. He had won in Los Angeles in February, then in Mexico City and Austin in March. But on the night before the first round of the Masters, Johnson fell down a set up slippery steps in his stockinged feet, and prior to Glen Oaks he had been pretty much scuffling along. Throughout golfdom, people were taking notice.

As for Spieth, you wanted to see if this guy could take hold a tournament and strangle the life out of it, a la Tiger. He hadn’t done that, famously so, at Royal Birkdale. Through 54 holes he had a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar. But after the crazy-insane bogey he made on 13, he was trailing Kuchar by one. Yes, he wound up winning by three but when the whole nutty round was over he spoke one of the deepest truths you’ve ever heard an elite player say. He said, “During the round today, I definitely thought, ‘Any kind of fear or advantage that you can have in this moment over other individuals, not just Matt Kuchar today, but other people that are watching, that’s being taken away by the way that I’m playing right now.’ And that was really tough to swallow. And that kind of stuff goes into your head. I mean, we walk for two minutes, three minutes in between shots. And you can’t just go blank. You wish you could, but thoughts creep in.”

So Johnson was trying to make up for a season that, despite its off-to-the-races start, was a big flat nothing in golf’s grandest events. As for Spieth, he was trying to prove that he could play with a lead, that he could be a step-on-their-necks closer, in the tradition of the great man himself. Spieth extended his lead to five through five holes. Then Spieth splashed one of the par-3 6th and made a 5 to Johnson’s 3. On the par-4 9th, Johnson drove it about 35 yards past Spieth and made a 3 to Spieth’s three-putt 5. Suddenly Spieth’s at-the-turn lead was one lone shot.

Early in Johnson’s career, when he was more famous for his ability to dunk a basketball than anything else, Woods made an observation about Johnson’s game that has proven to be true again and again. There are a lot of long hitters in the game: Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, joined more recently by Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and many others. But among the long-whackers, Johnson was unique, because his power had an almost effortless to it. He had, Woods said, “an extra gear.” He may not play the super brainy golf that made Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus and even Jordan Spieth legends. But an extra gear is an extra gear.

The back nine was match play. You half-expected Spieth and Johnson to concede the short putts to one another. Nobody else was in it. A nine-hole sprint to one-point-six.

Professional golf in late August on Long Island is not an easy sell, not with the Yankees trailing the Red Sox in the AL East by a few games, with the U.S. Open tennis on the horizon, with Jones Beach beckoning. But the fans who were there, and anybody watching on TV, saw one of the best golf shows of the year. Here’s one man’s ranking of the top four: the British Open, the Masters, the Long Island event, the Hartford event. Nothing to do with FedEx points or blah-blah-blah. Just two excellent golfers playing superb golf on a superb course. The crowd there was way, way into it.

New York, New York. There’s nothing like it. When a group of fans did not heed Johnson’s request to stand still while he putted, somebody yelled at them, “This isn’t Brooklyn!” Divots were compared not to wee strips of bacon, as they are in the Scottish Highlands, but to pizza slices. There were fans calling Johnson “Deej” and “Dusty,” “DJ” being just too ordinary. The guy blowing sand off the 18th green got a standing ovation. Spieth got to 13 under with a birdie on 14 and Dusty got there himself on the next hole. (“Attaway to roll it, Deej!”)

They are an odd contrast. Spieth is a fast walker who at times takes forever over the ball and of course talks it all out before committing to anything. Johnson heads down the fairway with that syrupy slide-stroll but he needs little time over his ball. There was almost no chit-chat between the two players. Spieth gave Johnson a thumb’s up when he made his birdie putt on 15. They both made 4s on the par-4 16th. They both made up-and-down 3s on the par-3 17th and after short-siding themselves in a greenside bunker. Spieth, playing from a side-hill lie to a downhill green, made a 19-footer. Johnson’s bunker shot was so fine in every way it looked like he tossed it out by hand. In general, his golf looks like he talks to his ball in some secret, unspoken language and the ball does what he wants it to do. He actually plays at another level from anybody else in the game today.

This was U.S. Open rough at Glen Oaks, one of Long Island’s so-called “Jewish clubs,” founded by wealthy, accomplished Jewish businessmen years ago when they were not welcome at the elite WASP clubs on Long Island’s Gold Coast. New York’s Jewish clubs often tried to outdo everything the WASP clubs did, especially in the area of food. Glen Oaks is famous for its food. Its healthy rough has everything to do with the fact that the course superintendent is one of the best in the game, Craig Currier, formerly of Bethpage—and Bethpage Black in particular. There was U.S. Open rough, and U.S. Open greens, and U.S. Open trees. You remember U.S. Open trees, don’t you?

Johnson had the honor on the 72nd hole and pushed his drive into the rough, in a spot so bad a marshal marked it with one of those little red flags. He had to hack it out, wedge on and make a must-make 18-footer for par to match Spieth’s own 4 there. Johnson’s putt was in, it was out and in the end it was in.

In his uniquely good-natured and analytical way, Spieth said, “I wasn’t rooting for him to make that putt. I didn’t know if he was going to go firm or soft. I didn’t know if he was going to try and give himself a chance to lip it in or try and take some more break out. But about three feet out, I thought it was missing high. But his body language was hanging in. I’m like, does that really still have a chance? And it came around and lipped in, and my initial thought was, ‘I just did that exact same thing to him the hole before.'”

It was 6 p.m. on a still and warm summer night. The two best golfers in the game were tied through 72 holes. Every seat and ledge and hillock and verandah spot around the 18th green was filled. The two protagonists and their caddies rode out in separate carts back whence they came, to the 18th tee, for the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.

Spieth played first and hit a draw shot down the middle on a dogleg left hole, a cape hole with a large and inviting lake at its elbow. “It’s only 300 carry,” Johnson said, describing the aggressive over-the-pond line he took in the playoff. It was a different line than he had used 15 minutes earlier, because the modest breeze against had died. “I can cover that.”

Spieth hit a six-iron into 18. Johnson had a 60-degree wedge. It was not a fair fight. Spieth made a 4. Johnson hit the most beautiful spinning, all-grace lob wedge you could imagine and it was nearly a kick-in 3. Set-up by that extra gear. Covering 300 hundred, no problem. The tee shot went 341. Ho-hum.

Spieth was more animated in defeat than Johnson was in victory. Just two totally different people. A reporter asked Johnson if he knew how wild it sounded to the ordinary golfer, that 300 yards was no problem to carry.

The winner kind of tilted his head, did a mini-shrug and said, “No. I mean, I’m used to it.”

How nice, for him.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at