Newsmakers Of The Year
No. 9: Jordan Spieth
Continued (page 2 of 3)
McCormick's teaching style has something of Butch Harmon and Sean Foley. Like Foley, he's a student of biomechanics, relies on TrackMan for feedback, is interested in the intellectual and psychological aspects of the game and considers himself more overall coach than swing instructor. Like Harmon, his intent was to refine Spieth, not define him. "It was fascinating to see. A kid of immense skill, you don't want to screw him up but, still, he was very one-dimensional," says McCormick. "I'd only been teaching for five years at that point, and this was the most talented man I'd ever come across. Over time it's always been about softening the excessiveness of his tendencies while still enabling the athlete to produce the outcomes that he wants to produce."
That outcome included two USGA junior titles and an NCAA team championship at Texas. In the year and change Spieth was a Longhorn, he would frequently see Tom Kite, who he calls Mr. Kite, at Austin CC. "I think I've finally got him trained," says Kite. "In a couple of emails I said, 'Jordan, I'm going to come out on the PGA Tour and kick your ass if you keep calling me mister.' Quite honestly, I thought his swing while he was at UT was too steep and too upright, stance too narrow. Whoever helped him deserves some credit, and Jordan deserves some credit for making the changes. You look at his swing right now and it looks beautiful."
After leaving Texas and failing to get through the second stage of Q school, Spieth was resigned to using the Web.com Tour (where he had no official status) as his path to the PGA Tour. Kite is the architect of Trump International GC in Puerto Rico and planted the seed that helped Spieth land a sponsor's exemption for the PGA Tour's Puerto Rico Open. The then 19-year-old finished second. He secured a temporary tour card the next week in Tampa. More top-10s at Hilton Head, Colonial and Congressional followed. And on and on. Spieth led the tour in top-10 finishes. He was fourth in eagles, eighth in total driving, ninth in scoring average and first in making birdie or better on par 4s. What he wasn't was a factor in the major championships he earned his way into.
Majors have become, to some degree, long-iron (or hybrid) contests, positioning the ball in the fairway when driver is taken out of the players' hands and hitting long clubs into super-sized par 4s. It's one area Spieth and McCormick want to address in the off-season. "We had a meeting. There was lots of conversation about skill improvements. There was a lot of conversation about psychology in the bigger events," says McCormick. "We'll set some incremental goals in terms of how we're going to train and how we're going to practice. Through the bag, he's really solid. He's got to improve his long-iron controllability. When he's off, he'll miss long irons to the right. He's got to improve his short-game execution from the fringe to 30 yards. Putting, we've just got to continue to ride this wave of psychological development."
Not even a year after he was attending classes in Austin, Spieth was buying a house in Dallas. He has a girlfriend, Annie Verret, who was at the Presidents Cup, but the personal bits of his life aren't settled yet. "It would be easy to get sidetracked," says his Texas coach, John Fields. "The coolest thing to me is to listen to a guy who's continued to be really, really appreciative of everything that's happening. It's not like he's not thought about these things. Being able to be paired with a guy like Steve Stricker or getting a call from Fred Couples, he's not taking anything for granted, I can tell you that."
As impressive as Spieth's golf was in 2013, rarely was that the first thing anyone mentioned about him. "He's as down to earth and grounded a person as you're going to meet," says his caddie, Michael Greller, who spent 10 years teaching sixth grade before becoming a full-time caddie. And, while Greller was every bit as much a rookie on tour as Spieth, what better preparation is there for being a tour caddie than teaching 12-year-olds? "I can't say enough good things about him as a person," says Kite of Spieth. Davis Love III filled in Couples before Fred made the tough choice of youth over Jim Furyk's experience. "All I told Freddie was about him as a person, as a guy around the locker room," says Love. "He's not thinking all about himself. He says the right thing. Does the right thing. Nothing fazes him. It's amazing."
Spieth can jaw with Woods and Mickelson, win a playoff with humility like he did at the John Deere and lose one with dignity like he did at the Wyndham. His grip remains weak and the marriage of his hands on the club idiosyncratic. He's not in the top echelon in driving distance though he's long enough to make his accuracy a weapon. With the exception of Luke Donald, however, there hasn't been a sustained World No. 1 who wasn't a power player since Nick Faldo. Spieth's rookie season was like a seven-month long hot streak, and it remains to be seen if he's gained the patience to succeed in the majors or to weather a sustained bad patch. But for his game to go south, any pitfalls of the future will have to overwhelm the groundwork of the past.
Spieth grew up in a middle-class Dallas neighborhood of brick ranches where the streets are named for Disney characters, a place where dreams come true. Jordan's parents, Shawn and Chris, were among 200 or so in a high school graduating class in a small town in Pennsylvania. Shawn went to Clemson to play baseball but transferred after a year to Lehigh where he pitched and played first base and centerfield. Chris was a power forward with a sharp pair of elbows across the Lehigh River at Moravian.
Shawn got his first job with Alcoa and later an MBA. He and a partner are about to launch a social media start-up. Chris was a computer engineer and worked for Neiman Marcus for 17 years. Their middle child, Steven, is a 6-6 freshman shooting guard at Brown. Jordan is 6-1. "The last time I played him one-on-one, I beat him," says Jordan. "I knew it was the luckiest I could ever be, so I said, 'I'm never playing you again.' It must have been four years ago."
The Spieths' third child, Ellie, seven years younger than Jordan, was born with neurological challenges the cause of which has never been understood. "She's what keeps our family grounded," says Jordan. "She's the funniest person in our family, by far." Steven's basketball games were easier for Ellie to attend than Jordan's golf tournaments because, as Shawn, says, "You just never know when she's going to want to talk or yell Jordan's name."
Both Jordan and Steven attended Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas where, after Ellie was born, Chris worked part-time to defray tuition costs. Seniors there spend part of every Wednesday doing community service. Jordan asked if he could work at Ellie's school, the Vanguard Preparatory School, where most of the children have mood disorders or are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Ellie's classroom had three small tables surrounded by small chairs, art projects on one wall, the alphabet on another. Kevin Goodnight was Ellie's teacher then. "I'm a huge golfer," he says, "but we never got to talk shop. Jordan would come in, and he would instantly go to work with these kids. If we were doing math, he would find someone who needed help. 'You doing OK? Are you OK?' Until he found someone. We had a boy who could not shoot a basket. He would throw the basketball up, and it would go backwards over his head. It would go everywhere except at the basketball goal. Jordan worked with this boy and worked with him. The kid finally made a basket. He just went nuts, and the whole playground erupted."