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Golf's New Generation Brings Drama to US Open Weekend

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2015

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The only thing bumpier than many of the performances at the 115th U.S. Open were the greens, which has led to a fittingly U.S. Open feel to this year's renewal.

The one constant between both majors so far in 2015 is the attendance of one Jordan Spieth atop the leaderboard. His road to Masters glory better resembled a German Autobahn, whereas his trip around Chambers Bay is, to go full-on Kerouac, more of a dirt road.

Our resident Masters champ, who will try to be the first golfer to pull off the Masters-U.S. Open double since Tiger Woods did it in 2002, played early in the day and carded another round below par—three under—to go to five under for the championship. His score was the sun others orbited for the better part of Friday’s late rounds.

Several golfers—many unknown—draft in Spieth's post-Masters wake, but three remain the favorites to challenge Spieth and stake their claim as a champion in major golf competition.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

First is Dustin Johnson, masher of all things Titleist. He drew much of the attention from the Fox broadcast mainly due to his propensity for airmailing his drives to Mount Rainier.

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“He came in here with the mindset that he wanted to hit the driver,” Greg Norman, Fox’s golf analyst, said during the broadcast. “He’s continued to do it and he’s dominated the course because of it. He’s reduced [his approaches] to sand wedges. His short game is really good. He’s putting well. He’s putting smooth.”

Johnson was once at seven under par, but he had three bogeys over his final five holes to skid down the leaderboard from a share of the lead to one back. For Johnson, unfortunately, that’s a familiar feeling. ESPN's Jason Sobel put it this way:

Jason Sobel @JasonSobelTAN

Dustin Johnson's front nine: Three birdies, four pars, two bogeys. Who says you have to play steady, boring golf to contend at a U.S. Open?

In the 2010 U.S. Open, Johnson shot 66 on Moving Day and was a heavy favorite to win, but on Sunday he triple-bogeyed the second hole, lost a drive in the brush and shot a final-round 82, a 16-stroke swing.

A few months later at the PGA Championship, on the final hole of regulation, Johnson touched his 4-iron into an unassuming sand trap that he confused with wear-and-tear. The resulting penalty kept him out of the playoff and painfully major-less yet again.

He’s still firmly in contention at this U.S. Open, especially with the way he stripes his drives. His score remains a great sign: According to the Fox broadcast, 20 of the last 25 winners of the U.S. Open have come from golfers inside the top five after 36 holes. He’s in a tie for third, one stroke back of the other young gun lurking in the shadows.

That’s Patrick Reed, the co-leader at five under par heading into the weekend. Reed is one of the more brash and abrasive players on tour. You’d have to be to wear red on Sundays. He, along with Spieth, by virtue of their Ryder Cup performances, announced just who would be the next great American golf talents.

Though Spieth made a mockery of Augusta this year, Reed is every bit as gifted. Earlier this year he joined a small fraternity of golfers with four wins by the age of 25 in the last 25 years, the others being Woods, Sergio Garcia, McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.

What Reed had going for him at Chambers, above all else, was his putter. He averaged 1.67 putts per hole, good for a tie for 11th. Reed rolled in bombs on No. 11 (birdie) and No. 12 (eagle) that vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard.

U.S. Open (USGA) @usopengolf

A great drive leads to this great putt, and @PReedGolf joins @DJohnsonPGA at the top of the #USOpen leader board. http://t.co/NbNen3Zsh9

Also close to the leaders is Jason Day, but his presence in Saturday’s lineup is in question. On the final hole of his round Friday, Day, suffering from vertigo, fell to the ground while approaching the green. He’s only three strokes back and, if healthy, demands respect and is every bit as capable as the others at grabbing the attention of the golfing world.

Not joining Johnson, Spieth or Reed in the late pairings are the big stars. Woods' subterranean efforts sent him back to a Florida driving range, one presumes. Mickelson had a flat-lining Friday in which he made the cut at three over, but not with any legitimate chance at winning his elusive U.S. Open.

Even McIlroy, who had brilliant spurts Friday, never could manage to get under par, leaving his Moving Day van without the requisite fuel for the weekend.

Which makes the spotlight even brighter on Spieth. His five under par held up as Reed slid back to him with a bogey on No. 18. And who would bet against Spieth to win this tournament? It’s not quite as dominant as his play at Augusta National Golf Club, but you can argue that what he’s doing at Chambers Bay is more impressive. Golfers dominate Augusta; Chambers Bay dominates golfers.

Spieth’s game, as compared to others, has been remarkably level. Reed, for all his brilliance, settled for six bogies Friday. Spieth crushed the par threes with three birdies and also hit 71 percent of his fairways and 78 percent of his greens. Throw in 28 putts in Round 2, and he’s managed to grind his way into contention for his second career major.

Spieth said in Ryan Lavner’s GolfChannel.com story:

It’s definitely something I’ve improved on. I don’t know if it’s my trademark, but it’s something that maybe a few years ago may have gotten to me a little bit more. But my patience and realization that this golf course is going to test your nerve and it’s how you rebound from it, my knowledge having played in a few (Opens) certainly kicked in there.

There’s a changing of the guard taking place, especially with Mickelson, age 45, lower on the leaderboard, and Woods somewhere near Orlando pondering just where his swing patterns will take him next.

And through it all is Spieth. He can win with the lead or (maybe) he can grind it out. It doesn’t matter who’s near him—stars of today or stars of yesterday—because nobody’s flame burns brighter than Spieth’s, now more than ever.

That flash? It's not in the pan.

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