Sally Jenkins: A pitiless U.S. Open course, with no sympathy for needy players

OAKMONT, Pa. – There are a lot of needy guys in this U.S. Open field, players who are looking to shake off some clinging episode of failure, anxious to prove that this time they won’t fluster. Jordan Spieth is needy, and so is Rory McIlroy. Dustin Johnson is seriously needy. But neediness is not a quality that Oakmont Country Club rewards. In fact, Oakmont actively repels golfers who need too much from it. It’s about as receptive to an overly hungry shot as a hardwood table is to a marble.

There’s a collision coming between this pitiless old golf course and those players who feel they need an U.S. Open victory to make something right in their careers. It’s going to be a four-day psychological examination: who can best channel their emotions and hide their frailties, on a course that will bait them with thin-necked fairways, shoulder-deep bunkers and shoe-grabbing four-inch rough. It’s a course that can push players embarrassingly over par, and tends to reward only the most self-controlled and in-command champions, names like Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. Not a needy group.

“The guys that are struggling, it will really magnify that weakness,” McIlroy says.

McIlroy needs a win, bad, if he’s going keep pace with the other rising greats of his generation. There were four majors before the age of 26 – and then this long pause. He sacrificed 2015 to a torn up ankle from rec soccer, ceded his No.1 ranking to Spieth, and blew up in the final round of the Masters this spring with a 79. He finally seems to be in forward motion again, with five top 10s in his past six tournaments. But the gap raised questions about the breadth of his game and of his ambition that he is anxious to answer; he’d like to prove he’s not just a streak putter with a high ball flight who took advantage of forgiving courses. “The majors I have won have been soft,” he admitted. Oakmont will require something different from him: absolute control and real emotional maturity. He’ll have to play it safer, knock down his shots, pull smaller clubs, and pick his way through the course obstacles. A challenge he approached with, “Trepidation, I guess,” he said.

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“You just have to be so disciplined,” he said, “and just plot your way around the course. Mentally that’s what’s going to win it for you this week, is how people can keep their calm and keep their composure.”

Spieth is undergoing his own self-scrutiny here. A guy who seemed invulnerable to nerves, with two majors by the age of 22, unexpectedly fell apart in the final round of the Masters with that splashy quadruple bogey on No. 12. Suddenly he became ground under repair. It wasn’t until a victory at Colonial at the end of May that he truly pulled himself together. “I did move on,” he says. “I moved on.” Still, he will be eager to reestablish himself in a major setting; this will be his first chance to contend in one since that awful Sunday.

“If you’re coming off kind of a heartbreaking loss, getting back into contention can be fearful, and you’ve just got to push through the fear,” he says. “When I say the fear, the potential for bad memories to pop up, right?”

Surely nobody has more bad memories than Dustin Johnson, or a greater need for his first major victory. There is a whole chamber of horrors in his head to get rid of. The grounding of his club in a bunker to cost himself a place in a playoff in the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits. Overnight leads in three majors last season, without a victory. Most painfully, the three-putt on the 18th hole in the Open at Chambers Bay from 12 feet, when he needed just one putt to win and two to tie with Spieth. He was still being asked about it at the Memorial two weeks ago, provoking an exasperated reply to CBS. “I don’t know if anyone’s aware of it, but I’ve played 20 freaking tournaments since Chambers Bay,” he said. “It’s not that I’ll be okay. I am okay.”

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These aren’t the only needy cases, just some of the most glaring. Phil Mickelson is needy, hoping for a victory to salve both his heart and legacy after six painful runner-up Open finishes, and complete a career Grand Slam. Rickie Fowler is needy, still seeking his first major title despite his perpetual presence in the top 5.

Need is a relative term, of course. How much can players who live in gated communities in tax havens really need? The guy who can play from that place of security, who can most calmly manage the inevitable setbacks and penalties Oakmont will deal out, both fairly and unfairly, is one with the best chance to get what he needs here, according to Spieth. But it’s easier said than done.

“You have to golf your ball around this place,” Spieth says. “And the person who is in full control of their entire game will win this U.S. Open.”

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at