Asked which one of the game’s current “Big Three” he’d like to be going into the second major of the season at Oakmont, Player picked out Spieth, who is bidding to become the event’s first back-to-back winner since Curtis Strange achieved that feat in 1989.
“If you look at The Masters this year, it was very interesting,” noted the 80-year-old South African, who was speaking at Royal Troon during a patrons’ day for Mercedes-Benz ahead of next month’s Open Championship at the Ayrshire venue. “You had Rory McIlroy swinging the club beautifully and you had Jason Day playing beautifully. Then you had Jordan Spieth playing very badly. As he said himself, he had his B game that week. He had a 7 at a par 3 (the 12th in the final round) yet still beat them (McIlroy and Day).”
Unfortunately for Spieth, of course, that untimely quadruple-bogey as he closed in on a second successive Masters triumph opened the door for Englishman Danny Willett to claim the Green Jacket, though the Texan has taken just three events to return to winning ways on the PGA Tour. According to Player, his victory in the Dean & Deluca Invitational in Fort Worth last month delivered proof of two things.
“All you hear now from golf commentators is how far players hit the ball,” added the nine-time major champion. “Yet 70 per cent of golf is from 100 yards and in. Golf comes down to the mind and putting, not long driving, as we have been brain-washed to think. No-one putts anywhere near as good as Jordan Spieth. In fact, Jordan Spieth around the green is as good as any man that has ever lived.
“However, he has a fault in his swing and I would love to spend 30 minutes with him to straighten that out. I’ve hit more balls – 11.2 million – than any man that has ever lived. I’ve also been around the best players in the world for 63 years and I see this fault in his swing and they are not finding it.
“He goes to a tournament a few weeks ago and says he doesn’t know where the ball is going and loses the tournament by one shot. This guy is so good around the green that if he can get rid of this fault in his swing, he might turn out to be the best player that ever lived. That is the possibility.”
Asked by Scotland on Sunday why, if it is such an obvious fault, it wasn’t being picked up by Spieth’s long-time coach, Australian Cameron McCormick, Player said: “I dinnae ken, laddie. It’s a bit like asking why could the coaches who taught Tiger Woods not teach him the right thing when he was changing his swing? Tiger Woods never had a lesson yet he won the US Open by 15 shots…15 shots! If he never had a lesson in his life, he would have gone on and won 22 majors by now. He’d have broken every inconceivable record. Yet he goes and has lessons. One guy tells him this, another guy tells him this and he ends up being confused.
“People think I am talking nonsense but I have only met one person in my 63 years as a pro that really and truly knew the golf swing. He was Ben Hogan and he wouldn’t tell you much.”
Oakmont is where Tommy Armour, the “Silver Scot”, won his US Open in 1927, claiming the title in an 18-hole play-off with Harry Cooper. It’s also where Colin Montgomerie lost out in a similar play-off to Ernie Els in 1994, when the shoot-out also involved Loren Roberts.
In the last US Open there, the 2007 event that saw Argentina’s Angel Cabrera come out on top, the winning total was five-over-par. On a course where the par-3 eighth measures 288 yards, the par-5 12th is 667 yards and the ninth is now a 477-yard par-4, having been a par-5 prior to 2007, players are predicting a stiff examination this week, even by US Open standards.
“It truly is, I think, the hardest golf course we’ve ever played,” reported Phil Mickelson of a visit last week in preparation for his latest bid to land that elusive US Open trophy after finishing runner-up six times in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2013. “They let the rough grow long – if it’s wet they’ll leave it like that, if it’s dry they’ll thin it out because less balls will hit the fairway.
“A lot of golf courses, when it challenges you tee to green the way Oakmont does, it usually has a little bit of a reprieve on the greens. [But] you really don’t at Oakmont, they are some of the most undulating, fast, difficult greens to putt.”
Concurring, Spieth said: “If the fairways get too firm, it could potentially be scary and could be almost too challenging to hold them in certain cases. The best player will come out on top this week. You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces or this or that. You have to golf your ball around this place and the person who is in full control of their entire game will win this US Open.
“I know that if you win a US Open at Oakmont you can say you’ve conquered the hardest test in golf, because this is arguably the hardest course in America day-to-day. That would obviously be a tremendous honour. Any time you win the US Open, you’ve won the hardest test in golf that year, but this is potentially the hardest test in all of golf.”
At least they are trying to master it with modern equipment. On his visit to Royal Troon, Player couldn’t resist picking up an old wooden-headed driver he came across in the professional’s shop and found himself shaking his head in disbelief. “I looked at it and said, ‘I would give anything to see Rory and these guys playing this driver’. It looked like a piece of bloody crap and it makes you think, ‘how did we produce the scores we did with that type of equipment?’ Amazing.”