As many U.S. golf fans mostly drooled and silently prayed, the boy next door, Jordan Spieth, hung tough in the U.S. Open here Saturday.
You don’t play the horrors of Chambers Bay. You survive them. Whoever does that best Sunday wins a big check, a big trophy and the title of King of Patience. If you allow yourself to be bewitched, bothered or even the slightest bit bewildered on one of these U.S. Golf Assn. courses designed to baffle, you won’t win.
Spieth should be the likeliest candidate to come apart. He is only 21 years old.
Most places don’t even allow you to drink a beer before you reach that age, much less expect you to be able to coast along merrily through impossible pin placements, relentless media scrutiny and the pressure of expectations that comes with your recent Masters victory.
But then, as we have come to see, this kid is 21 going on 40.
I got a personal taste of it a year ago, and at the time, I filed it away, hoping that my impression was correct. A year later, it’s clear it was.
It was the Monday before last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst and Spieth was in the media interview room. He didn’t pack the house because, at that point, he was promising, but hadn’t really done anything. That is, unless you count chipping in out of bunker at the John Deere Classic the year before to get himself into a playoff that he won.
But stars are not created at the John Deere Classic.
The interview session had gone well. Lots of the usual golf questions, lots of predictable answers from Spieth. Sometimes these gatherings are mind-numbing . “How are you hitting it, Jordan?”... “What are your chances this week?” Spieth volleyed back with appropriate vanilla.
I had read an item about his sister, Ellie, being a special-needs child. She is seven years younger and I was curious about the family dynamics of that, of celebrity brother and autistic sister. My interest was increased because we have a special-needs son.
So I asked him about it. He looked up, kind of startled that he was getting a question not dealing with birdies and bogeys and clubhead speed.
He answered articulately and even seemed to brighten up at the prospect of talking about Ellie. But that ended the formal interview session. The probings about driver versus three-wood had lost steam.
I trailed him outside, where he had stopped to sign autographs. He was alone. No Tiger protective entourage around this kid.
I told him I hoped I hadn’t offended him or gone beyond the line of comfortable questioning. I also mentioned my personal interest. He picked up on that immediately, said he is always happy to talk about his sister and added, laughing, “I can win a bunch of majors and she will always be No. 1 in our family.”
He has yet to win a bunch of majors, but that seems like a given.
What also seems like a given is that Spieth, if he keeps his head level and his game sound, will become golf’s next infatuation.
Fox’s Joe Buck taped an interview with Spieth before this Open and remarked later that he was the “kind of kid you want your daughter to marry.”
But maintaining that imagery and reality, in the face of all the things that will be, well, in his face, will not be easy.
Spieth sank his second consecutive birdie on No. 3 Saturday and quickly took a three-shot lead at seven under (that lasted about five minutes). Fox couldn’t wait to get up a graphic that showed how Ben Hogan had won the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in 1953.
Spieth was struggling just to stay near the top on the second leg of that majors trilogy . In life, and in television, that is called putting the cart before the horse.
Not only does Spieth show amazing potential for being a multiple major winner. He also shows a real instinct for being real. There seems to be no phony PR in him, no programmed lines or image-enhancing spin.
Friday, TV cameras, which have never been more than five feet from his face here, caught him telling his caddie how terrible he thought No. 18 was as a par-four.
Asked about it afterward, there was no dancing, rationalizing or backing off.
“I think 18 as a par-four doesn’t make much sense,” Spieth said. “Of course, at the moment when I didn’t hit the right shots, it’s going to make less sense. And whatever, if the microphones are going to pick up, they’re going to pick it up ... I’m not going to put a smile on it.”
Saturday, Spieth wasn’t even the story of the day, unless you are giving bonus points for patience and perseverance.
No. 1 had to be Jason Day’s incredible performance to get him to four under par and a share of the lead, after looking like he might not even make it to the end. He handled both vertigo and Chambers Bay in one remarkable parlay.
Dustin Johnson and Branden Grace also battled Chambers effectively and also ended up at four under.
And the course itself was pretty prominent in the proceedings. Some perspective: To top this next year, the USGA might have to move the tournament to a runway at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Also, reduce the size of the cup by an inch or so.
But at the end, there was cool-and-collected Jordan Spieth. He hadn’t played great. He’d missed a bunch of makeable putts. He shot one-over 71. But he still shared the lead. He hadn’t cracked.
Sunday’s U.S. Open will bring even more torture.
But we know one 21-year-old who seems up to it.
Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes