News & Opinion

Spieth enjoys view from top (sorry, D.J.)

AKRON, Ohio – Here’s the answer to today’s trivia question: Dustin Johnson. 

And here’s today’s question: Who’s the No. 1 golfer in the world, according to the official rankings and their decimal points?

I can hear you gasp, your breath escaping in a confused rush of air, like an orangutan jumping on an accordion.

This is Jordan Spieth’s world now, not D.J.’s, right? There is still a sense of breathlessness to Spieth’s British Open victory two weeks ago at Royal Birkdale – the crazy penalty drop on the range, the sprint up the hillock dune to see the result, the birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie recovery, and the electricity of all those moments. 

Johnson has three victories this year, and I’ll buy a round at the bar if you can rattle off more than one within five seconds. What? Huh? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Johnson won at Riviera, followed by World Golf Championships in Mexico and Austin, the last coming seemingly a century ago, in March. He was about to be conceded the Masters because he was playing so darned well, but then he slipped on a staircase at his rental home in Augusta, hurt his back and vanished from the Golf Channel highlights and, therefore, our sieve-like short-term memories, although he did tie for eighth last week at the RBC Canadian Open.

Meanwhile, Spieth cemented his place as America’s darling. He also has won three times this year, and I’ll buy a round at the bar if you can’t rattle off all three.

Pebble Beach, of course. It was too scenic to forget. The bunker hole-out in the playoff to win at Hartford? Yeah, that was golf’s shot of the year, until Birkdale, where he surpassed it with the 3-iron shot over the dune from the practice range (shades of Seve Ballesteros in the car park at Royal Lytham & St. Annes a few decades ago) or the ensuing bogey putt or any of his next four holes. If it were up to me, the 48-foot eagle putt that was center-cut would be the winner.

Royal Birkdale asked him for the 3-iron, or a replica, for its clubhouse display, Spieth said Wednesday as he prepared for the Bridgestone Invitational here at Firestone Country Club (tee times: http://bit.ly/2hnkC7o) while next week’s PGA Championship looms large on the horizon.

“Obviously, I’m a little sensitive to it,” Spieth said with a bemused grin, “but that’s going to be the shot that’s pictured there and remembered, unfortunately.”

Asked if he was OK with the many references to his 13th-hole adventure, Spieth laughed, indicating that he already is over it, maybe on account of having the Claret Jug in his possession. That kind of glorious prize can make you forget a bad shot, a bad year or a bad marriage.

“The up-and-down there was much harder than the 3-iron shot,” he said.

Spieth gushed his surprise about how rested and rejuvenated he felt Wednesday after a week off, given how much the Open took out of him. (Note to competitors: You have been warned.) 

He couldn’t sleep after he flew back home. After a couple of restless hours, he got up and flipped on the DVR to watch the replay. He fast-forwarded to the 12th hole and watched the rest, then later watched those parts again with his caddie, Michael Greller. They enjoyed the heck out of it, and Spieth especially liked NBC’s multiple-angle replays of his eagle putt at 15 so he could see Greller laughing after Spieth haughtily ordered him to “Go get that!”

He’d also like to clear the air about that famously errant drive.

“The drive on 13, I’ll say it now because on the coverage it was quoted as being 100 yards right. It was not 100 yards right,” Spieth said with a big smile. “Our fairway is the right rough on that hole. It was raining. When there’s water on the ball, the ball squirts to the right. Now, I missed the right side of the fairway by 20-ish yards, it hit a guy in the head and went over the mound. So, it was essentially 20 yards offline. 

“It wasn’t really that bad. It wasn’t a good shot. It was a foul ball to the right, but I need to back myself up here and say that I’m capable of hitting worse shots, OK?”

Spieth laughed again, a winner’s laugh. He said he got a congratulatory text from former President George W. Bush, a fellow Texan, that read, “Call me. I think I need to give you some driving lessons.” 

He’ll probably have to drive it straighter than that this week at Firestone, a tight, tree-lined course that he likes. It’s got a strong field of top players, including the defending champion. A guy named Johnson. Remember him?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle