ERIN, Wis. — By the 8th hole on Sunday, Jordan Spieth had no chance to win his second U.S. Open title. He was 2-under on his round, but two-over for the tournament, making him two touchdowns behind the leaders who had yet to tee off.
His drive caught the speed slot on the 492-yard par-4 and wound up miles past his playing partner Keegan Bradley’s.
But Spieth hit his wedge into the green heavy, letting out a frustrated yell as soon as he hit it. As soon as he hit his long birdie putt, the 23-year-old two-time major winner walked after it angrily.
It was his week in microcosm: Drive it well, hit greens, miss putts. Hardly what we’re accustomed to from a player who seems to make every putt he looks at — the harder and trickier, the better. And that was why things began to change for him on Sunday. The conditions were harder, there was less pressure to be perfect with no one around him shooting 63 to chase, and Spieth could focus on simple execution.
“Putter just let me down. Hit the ball great this week, it just couldn’t quite get the putts to go. And that happens,” Spieth said after his final round.
“I think I hit 17 greens today which was just awesome in these conditions. And then my expectations were lowered on the greens given the conditions. I think that was the difference. I was able to get to a few under by just accepting the fact that the putt might miss instead of having to have it be perfect.”
On a day when Erin Hills actually looked like Erin Hills, with gusting winds and firm greens, Spieth shot a 3-under 69, and looked every bit the U.S. Open champ we expected coming into the week. Perhaps if the conditions had played that way all week, it would have been a three-way race on Sunday for the U.S. Open trophy between a trio of friends.
By Sunday, it was too late for Spieth, but not for two of his best friends on tour and half of the SB2k16/17 crew Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. Fowler, the 18-hole leader, chasing his first major. Thomas, after a record-setting 63 on Saturday, likewise in search of his.
Spieth has been playing with Thomas since they were 14-year-olds together in junior tournaments.
“It’s pretty cool we’re able to battle it out in majors now. You just never know how things are going to go over the years and 10 years later we are out here.”
Even without a chance to win on Sunday, Jordan had plenty of skin in the game. At the very least, something else to joke about with his friends at Baker’s Bay or wherever SB2k18 will be.
Spieth insists Fowler and Thomas competing at a major shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.
“I don’t think anybody should be surprised with the way they’ve been able to do that in other events. They’re playing against the same people they always play against. It’s just a matter that this is one of the four majors in a year, and this is a U.S. Open. And it’s just kind of getting that out of your head and just playing against who you’re playing against like it’s a regular tournament.”
The story would have been perfect: Two friends, staying together this week at a house nearby, chasing their first major title while a third friend — with two majors already — gets to cheer them on.
It wasn’t meant to be Sunday as Rickie Fowler shot an even-par 72 to finish 10-under for the tournament but six shots off the winner, fellow young American Brooks Koepka (and despite Brooks looking very much like the older brother of the group, he’s a year younger than Fowler).
Thomas got off to a tough start and finished with a 3-over 75, 8-under for the tournament and in a tie for ninth despite playing in the final group.
“He had been there before and I hadn’t so he was maybe more comfortable than I was,” Thomas said of Fowler after the round.
“It was different [for me], but we were hoping that one of us was going to get it.”
Spieth is no stranger to major championship shortcomings either, losing a fierce battle with Jason Day at the 2015 PGA Championship at nearby Whistling Straits, and his infamous meltdown at the Masters last year.
Fowler was quick to point out after his round that losing is an even bigger part of professional golf than winning.
“I mean, I feel like golf-wise I’m playing at the highest level. If you look at the negatives too much, I mean, you’re going to be stuck doing that the whole time,” Fowler told reporters after his disappointing final round, the late-afternoon sun causing his traditional Sunday orange to glow.
“You have to measure success in different ways, not just by winning, just because that doesn’t happen a whole lot. I think Tiger had the best winning percentage of all time at 30%, and you’re lucky to even sniff close to 10. You kind of have to say, hey, it’s a major. We played well this week. I felt like I did a lot of good things, especially in the first round, executing my game plan.”
Thomas, for his part, echoes those sentiments, insisting he’s had a pretty good career for someone who is still just 24. In some ways, the idea that either has underachieved stems from the incredible success of Spieth, the youngest in the group.
He’s been battling Jordan dating back to their days on the junior circuit together. The two met when they were 14, and even played together representing the U.S. in a tournament in France.
A decade on, they’re chasing major titles together.
“It is cool. I think it’s something that needs to go more noticed, at least for myself. I’ve had a pretty awesome career for 24 and because of so many of the young stars it’s easy to get down on myself and look at a today like today and be down and be upset,” Thomas said, the cheers for Open winner Koepka echoing off the clubhouse behind him.
Young stars. Like perhaps Jordan Spieth?
“I don’t come here to be top-10, I come here to win, but I was in the final group, which is a new thing for me and just knocking new things off the list,” he said before bringing it back.
“But it’s really cool what we’re doing, and doing it together.”
For Thomas and Fowler this week “doing it” was contending for a major title, something their pal Jordan can’t claim. Each is likely to etch his name on a championship trophy sooner rather than later, and Spieth will no doubt bag more for himself.
One of the few things Tour players have in common with the average weekend duffer is that feeling of frustration and loss, like you could have played better, or couldn’t possibly have played worse.
Fowler, Thomas and Spieth couldn’t play more different styles of golf, but they share the sting of watching the opportunity to win a championship slip through their grasp.
No wonder they need those vacations.