Johnson vs. Spieth everything it could have been at Chambers Bay

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — For those who haven’t shaken the shock of the 72nd hole of Chambers Bay and have been playing the “what might have been game” ever since, Thursday at the Old Course was for you.

OK, so the stages aren’t at all alike. It’s pure links (Old Course) vs. contrived links (Chambers Bay); putting on greens (OC) vs. putting on broccoli (CB); play it on the ground (OC) vs. play it through the air (CB). But the point is, what we had in Thursday’s first round of the 144th British Open is what we thought we were going to get on Monday, June 22, the day that Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth were going to go head-to-head for 18 holes in a U.S. Open playoff.

Come on, you’ve told yourself a hundred times — maybe a thousand — that it was simple. That if you’re Johnson, you tell yourself to merely cozy that 12-footer for eagle down to the hole and that if it goes in, great, but if it doesn’t, you tap it in for birdie, and strut to the first tee the next morning with . . . well, exactly what does Johnson bring to the playoff?

“That crazy ability he has,” Spieth said.

Mind you, Spieth is jam-packed with marvelous talent, too. It’s just that he delivers it differently than Johnson: more precision than power, more brains than brawn. Of course, it’s cemented forever into the record books that Spieth won that U.S. Open, just as he won the Masters two months earlier, so it’s he who is chasing history here at the Old Course, halfway to the never-before-won professional Grand Slam. And why spend any time wondering what might have happened in a playoff that wasn’t required?

Well, because that’s what we love to do and when a day like Thursday is gift-wrapped — Spieth and Johnson in Game 17 in another major championship just four weeks later — how can you not let your mind wonder about what might have been?

If you do, consider that on a day when conditions were benign for most of their morning round and turned testy only over the final few holes, Johnson’s raw and explosive power produced a 7-under 65 and was a bit too much for Spieth’s 67, which was built upon grit and precision. No knockout, not even a TKO, but enough evidence to suggest that Spieth did well to avoid the one-day playoff at Chambers Bay.

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“It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there’s only two par 5s,” Spieth said. “If DJ keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance.”

Telling words, for sure, but before you start looking for a white flag, consider that no one — emphasis on no one — finds a way to get his golf ball into the hole any better than Spieth. Need proof? Look no further than the 18th at the Old Course, which just might be the easiest fairway in the golf galaxy to hit.

Only Spieth somehow found a way to send it so far left that for a split second you were wondering whether it would stay in bounds. OK, so it settled nicely, but “I hit a drive that would have been in big, big trouble if it was any other hole,” he said. Spieth quickly embraced the challenge and showed his uncanny abilities. From a wide-left angle, Spieth hit his second shot onto the green, then bent in a big left-to-right putt from about 15 feet. When Johnson converted for a disappointing par that earned the outright clubhouse lead, smiles were plentiful.

Johnson’s because he got out of position only twice and saved par each time — from 10 feet at the 16th and about 20 feet at the 17th.

Spieth’s because after making the turn in 5-under 31, the wind coming home offered a stiff test to a game that lacks the sort of power Johnson packs, yet he held tough.

If you were among those who might have been playing the “what might have been” game, understand that Johnson and Spieth didn’t join you.

Spieth, for obvious reasons. He won the U.S. Open, so clearly there’s no reason for the hypothetical. And Johnson? Well, have you ever heard that expression about water off a duck’s back?

“Like I’ve said a bunch of times, the U.S. Open . . . there’s really nothing to be upset about,” Johnson said. “I mean, it was a little disappointing not to get in the playoff, at least. But I don’t really dwell in the past too much.”

Would he mind if some of us do?

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