DUBLIN, Ohio – This week really shouldn’t have any bearing on who might or might not win the U.S. Open in two weeks.
The courses couldn’t be much more different. In fact, Muirfield Village might be the answer to the question, “What’s the opposite of Pebble Beach?” For example …
One has a stunning ocean view, and the other is sorta-kinda near the Olentangy River, which no one has mistaken for an ocean view or used the word stunning in the same sentence.
One has a pair of iconic par-3 holes on the ocean, and the other has copies of two iconic par-3 holes from Augusta National.
One is always as firm and fast as a poker table during tournament week in June, and the other is usually as soft and slow as a Jell-O shot.
One has greens barely bigger than Volkswagens, and the other has greens the size of Dairy Marts. Ditto for the widths of the fairways, by the way.
Pebble Beach is the former in all the examples, and Muirfield Village is the latter.
So, the players who contend for the Memorial Tournament might not be the same group of players who vie for the Open trophy. Also, did I mention that Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson aren’t playing this week?
Despite this asterisk-warning-disclaimer, three things happened during Thursday’s opening round that could have a bearing on the proceedings at Pebble. (If you want to sound like a golf insider, leave “Beach” off the name. Just using “Pebble” says it all, that you really know your golf.)
One is the continuing resurrection of Jordan Spieth. A month ago, the normally good-natured golfer seemed as if he had a burr on his saddle. He kept getting questions about being in a slump, what was wrong and what was he doing about it, and it was getting tiresome for him.
Spieth solved that problem by turning things around. After contending for a while at the AT&T Byron Nelson until a weekend hiccup (OK, a big hiccup), Spieth gamely fought off some quick hooks and made a weekend charge to tie for third at the PGA Championship on Long Island, then got in contention again last week and tied for eighth at Colonial.
He looked like the magical Spieth of old on and around the greens here. He chipped in twice, one of which salvaged a par that was either ridiculous or awesome, or maybe both, and poured in a 35-foot eagle putt en route to a 6-under 66. He stood second, one stroke behind Ryan Moore (scores).
Spieth hit 12 of 14 fairways, a number no doubt inflated by the expansive width of the fairways here and enhanced by their softness. Drives typically hit and stopped.
When he chased the Grand Slam in 2015 and won the British Open in 2017, Spieth was the best putter anyone had seen since young Tiger Woods left the building, maybe the best ever. He also turned chipping into a weapon. Well, that guy is back on the premises.
“I felt like I stole a couple early in the round,” Spieth conceded. “Two chip-ins certainly helped. The putter was what I like to see. I’ve been putting pretty well the last few weeks. I made a long one today and knocked in all the ones I should have made.”
When the guy who used to be the world’s best putter says he likes the way he’s putting, it’s time to listen.
As for his short game, you had to see him at the fourth hole to believe him. He missed the par 3 green to the right, well up a steep hillside. He had to aim away from the hole, let the ball glance sideways to his left off the ground and carry a greenside bunker. The ball landed on the green, earning an automatic A-plus for effort, and careened into the thick rough on the other side. Maybe the next chip was hard, maybe it wasn’t, but does it matter? He chipped in for a par from a position that a lot of players would have made double bogey.
If his ball-striking continues to improve, he should be on your short list of U.S. Open contenders. Remember, he has won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am there, just like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
The second item of note was Rory McIlroy. Big, sprawling courses that are soft and wet are right up his alley. He won a couple of majors on courses like that (see the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship). All right, so designer Jack Nicklaus tends to build courses for faders (like he was), and McIlroy draws the ball. But still, he had every number from 3 through 7 on his card, and that’s never good. McIlroy had two double bogeys, including an out-of-bounds tee ball, and shot 75 on a calm day when Muirfield Village was a virtual birdie-fest. Three over par on this day was like being 6 over. Pebble figures to much a much more stringent test than this.
Third, the myth of Tiger Woods continues. He birdied three of his last five holes to salvage a respectable 70 and looked more like the man who won the Masters and less like the shadow who missed the cut at the PGA.
“I’m definitely feeling a lot better and I’m hitting the ball a little bit better,” Woods said. “I need to not make a couple of loose mistakes like I did, and it could have easily turned and I could have shot 5 or 6 under par.”
It was a good way to start preparing for the U.S. Open, even if this course maybe isn’t a good place to start preparing for U.S. Open conditions.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle