By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) – Jordan Spieth will launch his U.S. Open title defense next week at Oakmont where, in the eyes of some, a question mark will be hovering over his ability to rebound from his shocking back-nine collapse at the Masters in April.
Though he won his eighth PGA Tour title at last month’s Colonial tournament in just his third start since the Masters, major championship pressure is intense and Spieth will also have to contend with lofty expectations as the defending champion.
Aged just 22, Spieth has already established a reputation for his remarkable composure when competing and that is what made his Masters meltdown even more astonishing.
The American young gun had stormed five strokes ahead with just nine holes to play in his title defense at the year’s first major but stunningly ran up a quadruple-bogey at the par-three 12th as he threw away the coveted Green Jacket.
Spieth himself believes that he has put the nightmare experience behind him, with the help of family and close friends, but acknowledges that he will remain under that particular spotlight at least until next year’s Masters.
“Part of it, I got over quickly,” Spieth said at last week’s Memorial tournament where he tied for 57th. “It will continue to be mentioned, maybe until we have a chance to win and win the Masters again. Something like that will always stick around.
“But (the Colonial tournament) was really nice. It was only our third tournament back, and that, I think, says a lot about our team that we were able to kind of brush aside and really perform under pressure.
“And a higher pressure knowing that the last time you were under that pressure, you didn’t quite pull it off, and it was on golf’s biggest stage. So obviously it sticks with you, makes next time that much harder.”
MOTIVATION THE KEY
Mental game expert Dr. Joe Parent, who helped major winners Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr reach top spot in the world rankings, fully expects Spieth to thrive at Oakmont in his first major since the Masters.
“I believe he will be highly motivated to win the U.S. Open,” Parent told Reuters. “One of his rules is: ‘There’s always more work to be done.’ And even Jack Nicklaus talked about Spieth’s Masters experience not being so bad for him.
“What happened to him at Augusta National during that final round will motivate and fire him up at Oakmont. And Jordan himself said “I never want to feel the way I did at the Masters, after the round, again.’
“Lest we forget, Jordan had a similar lapse in the 2014 Masters, and yet he came back to win the next year in record fashion.”
Two years ago, Spieth birdied four of the first seven holes in the Masters final round to lead by two shots but then faltered with three bogeys around the turn before finishing three strokes behind winner Bubba Watson.
“It stings right now,” Spieth said at the time. “I had it in my hands and I could have gone forward with it and I just didn’t quite make the putts. I feel like I’m ready to win. It’s just a matter of time. I’ll be back, and I can’t wait to be back.”
Spieth certainly did get back at Augusta National, clinching his first major title at last year’s Masters with a stunning wire-to-wire victory by four shots as he matched Tiger Woods’ tournament record low of 18-under 270 for 72 holes.
“And Rory McIlroy blew a similar lead starting the back nine in the 2011 Masters, and came back to win the very next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional, in record fashion,” said Parent, citing another recent ‘rebound’ example in the majors.
Northern Ireland’s McIlroy was four ahead going into the final round of the 2011 Masters and one stroke clear with nine holes to play before he tumbled out of contention to close with an eight-over 80.
In his very next major start, however, he landed his maiden grand slam crown with an eight-shot triumph at the U.S. Open where he posted a tournament record total of 16-under 268.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)