Newsmakers Of The Year
No. 9: Jordan Spieth
Lacking neither confidence nor grace, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth is a young head with an old soul. Surrounded by the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup side on the 18th green at Muirfield Village, having grown from generational curiosity to blooded teammate, the whole of his extraordinary first year as a professional golfer exceeded the sum of its parts. Sitting at the same green, one of golf's good guys, Adam Scott, talked about how pleased he was U.S. captain Fred Couples had chosen Spieth. "He could take a lot out of this," said the Masters champion, "and win majors very soon."
Looking for the next of whatever it was you had last, whether the next Jack Nicklaus or the next Tiger Woods or even the next Rory McIlroy, is a fool's errand rarely serving anyone on either end of the conversation. Spieth's rookie year wasn't close to being the best ever, but it was a damn fine one, every step up incrementally more uncommon than what preceded it. Off the course the word universally chosen by his peers to describe him was "mature." On the course he could be imprudently aggressive and impatient. And a lethal closer.
In the era of the blowout, along comes a young guy with a finishing kick the likes of which golf isn't often granted the privilege of watching. Lulled by the domination of a Woods or a McIlroy obliterating their opposition by eight or 10 or 12 shots, Phil Mickelson provided the most recent reminder of the electric shock a back-nine charge on Sunday can deliver when he won the British Open at Muirfield. Whether it's making five birdies in the last six holes, including a holed-out bunker shot to get into a playoff and eventually win the John Deere Classic; or shooting 31 on the back nine, plus a 30-footer for par on the first playoff hole at the Wyndham Championship; or closing with three birdies and an eagle for 62 in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship that made it nearly impossible for Couples to overlook him; or going on a seven-birdie-in-10-hole binge in the final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake GC, Spieth is blessed with the rare gift of closing speed. "I don't know what it is, to be honest," he says of that extra gear. "I just believe it's going to happen. Whenever the heat's on, my whole life, I've just kind of learned to focus a little more."
Harris English, who played on a Walker Cup team with Spieth, was paired with him and Mickelson on Sunday at the Deutsche Bank. "He's got that 'it' factor," says English. "He just gets the job done." On Wednesday of the Tour Championship, Spieth held Steve Stricker's coat while the part-time Cheesehead pro from Madison mopped up East Lake with Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, making seven birdies and an eagle in one of Phil's more expensive early week games. "Jordan is welcome back in the game. Stricker is not," said Phil, only half in jest. Growing slightly more serious, the five-time major champion added, "The thing I like about Jordan's game is he hits all the shots. He's not one-dimensional by any means. He hits cuts. He hits draws. He brings it in low. He shapes the ball into pins. He has the ability to go really low. To see a guy at 20 years old hitting all the shots, it's only going to get more refined."
Jimmy Johnson, Stricker's longtime caddie, played at the same course where Spieth learned the game, Brookhaven CC, in Dallas. "He doesn't like to lose," says Johnson. "That's about the biggest compliment I can give him -- he just doesn't like to lose."
Brookhaven, with its let-kids-be-kids-not-stars-in-training culture, has proven fertile ground for tour players. Andrew Magee, Brian Watts and Scott Verplank all percolated up through the Texas soil there. It was the place where Spieth dug his game out of the mud, literally. Joey Anders became an assistant professional at Brookhaven about the same time Spieth began hanging out there at age 8. "The only way I knew Jordan from anyone else was we had a junior camp and he had a Michael Jordan hat on, so it was real easy to remember his name," says Anders. The practice bunker, Anders says, was "a little mud pit to a downhill artificial turf green. When he was probably 11 years old, he was working hard as he could to try to figure out how to spin this thing out of mud to a downhill green as hard as concrete. Nobody in their right mind would even try the shot. I don't know that he ever got it down, but when I saw him in the [U.S.] Junior Amateur, he flew it over the green into a bunker to a tight pin, downhill lie, and he stuck it."
Spieth didn't get much more instruction at Brookhaven than occasional walk-by advice on the practice ground. His game grew organically. "He won everything," says Anders of the competitions he'd throw together for the juniors. "Yeah, his grip was funny and he was very upright, but he was winning. I think it's way more important to learn how to win and enjoy yourself and have confidence in yourself. I just don't want to have a kid at that age looking behind him instead of in front of him. I don't want him looking at his backswing, I want him looking at his target."
Just before Spieth's 13th birthday, he and his father, Shawn, decided it was time for something a bit more formal. If he was fortunate to have begun at a place where kids push one another like it was playground basketball, he was equally fortunate to find Cameron McCormick at nearby Brook Hollow GC, one of George W. Bush's hangouts. McCormick, 40, is a transplanted Australian who came to America to play college golf, getting a foot in the door at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., before transferring to Texas Tech. After graduation McCormick returned to Australia to try to play but didn't have much luck. He gave the mini-tours a whirl in Florida and quickly ran out of money. Having majored in international business, he was about to set golf aside for commerce when he got an assistant's job at The Lakes at Castle Hills outside Dallas, then another post at Dallas CC and, finally, a teaching spot at Brook Hollow, where the Spieths found him.
"I had a big loop in my swing, a very weak grip, misaligned, shoulders open and hit kind of push draws," says Spieth. The same push draw had produced a 62 the summer he was 12. "I went to Cam, and he asked me what my goals were. I said I want to be the best player in the world someday. He said, 'OK, then we're going to have to make some changes, and it's going to be difficult. It's probably going to take a little while and you may not play your best golf for a while.' I just went to the range, and I'd hit bags of balls, a bunch of 7-irons, and they wouldn't go higher than this off the ground," says Spieth, holding his arm out at his side.