John McGrath

John McGrath: At the Chambers Bay U.S. Open, Spieth was winner but Day was champion

The face of the sunny weekend at Chambers Bay turned out to be queasy and uneasy, with blank-stare eyes that spoke: “I really don’t want to be playing golf right now.”

But Jason Day played, and because he played, the 115th U.S. Open will be remembered for identifying Jordan Spieth as a winner and Jason Day as a champion.

Day woke up Sunday as the final-round co-leader of an event he twice has finished as runner-up. He knew he was only 18 holes removed from his first career major.

He also knew he belonged in bed.

Day, the sport’s No. 10-ranked player, didn’t come to University Place determined to introduce himself to an audience beyond committed golf fans. But when he collapsed on his final hole Friday before picking himself up and willing himself to the finish, Chambers Bay suddenly had an improbable favorite son.

The Australian guy with vertigo.

To be accurate, benign positional vertigo, a condition — this, according to the Mayo Clinic — that brings on “the sudden sensation that you’re spinning, or that the inside of your head is spinning.”

Benign positional vertigo is not considered serious, hence the “benign.” But a major tournament test, on a course as challenging as Chambers Bay, is tough enough without dizzy spells — again, according to the Mayo Clinic — triggered by “specific changes in the position of your head.”

Day was assigned to the last tee time Sunday afternoon, with Dustin Johnson. The gallery offered enthusiastic applause for Johnson, a South Carolina resident whose booming drives make him a crowd favorite wherever he plays. But the reception for Day was even louder.

His response to the public display of affection was telling: a quick hand wave but no semblance of emotion. Day wasn’t able to smile, and within an hour, he would have no reason to.

Day began the round at 4 under and remained there through five holes. Awaiting a 59-foot birdie putt at No. 6, Day decided to use a ridge on the green for a full-right-turn trip to the pin.

Such creativity is essential at Chambers Bay, but so is touch. Day’s putt stalled before it got to the ridge and stopped, leaving him with a 40-footer for par. The wild-ride putt for a birdie soon led to a bogey, the second of five.

Day wasn’t attempting to emulate Ken Venturi’s legendary 1964 U.S. Open victory at Congressional, where final-day golfers were required to play 36 holes amid temperatures that approached 100 degrees. Between rounds, Venturi tried to cool off on the clubhouse floor, but he was dehydrated to the point a doctor advised him that continuing could be harmful, and perhaps fatal.

“Well, doc,” Venturi said, “it’s better than the way I’ve been living.”

Ben Hogan’s 1950 “Miracle at Merion” — he won 16 months after nearly dying in a car accident — and Tiger Woods’ 2008 victory at Torrey Pines, where he survived an 18-hole playoff with a torn ACL and stress fractures in his leg, remain other staples of U.S. Open lore.

Because Day finished in a tie for ninth place, he can’t be compared to Venturi, Hogan or Woods. And though Day was betrayed by an inability to convert putts, he wasn’t defeated, not really.

A lesser competitor would have withdrawn after two rounds.

“I started feeling a lot better after the 12th hole, so that was a plus,” Day said after finishing his Sunday round at 4-over par. “I’m just glad I got in the weekend.”

Moments after Johnson missed the short birdie putt at No. 18, the putt that could have forced a Monday playoff, Day approached his crestfallen playing partner and offered a handshake.

The look on his face was different than the lifeless expression he brought to the first tee. It was a look of empathy extended by somebody realizing that a few days of nausea is preferable to the stomach-turning agony of the missed putt that costs a possible U.S. Open championship.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune