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.
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."
When Chris was 4, her mother, Ginny, collapsed on the kitchen floor with a brain aneurysm. She survived. Chris' father, Bob Julius, was an electrical engineer at Bethlehem Steel. At first, Chris and her five siblings were split up, sent to other families to live. Eventually, Bob was able to gather everyone back together. Ginny was handicapped the remainder of her life, severely so as time passed. Bob took care of her for 44 years.
All of Jordan's life, he has watched people he loves taking care of other people he loves. That may not be much help on the back nine of Augusta National where extra gears roar. But pretty much every place else, it's the voice that whispers to him what actually matters.