JOR­DAN SPI­ETH

This 21-year-old is draw­ing fans inside and out­side the ropes.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents 2/ 15 - By Jaime Diaz

The la­bel of Next Big Thing of­ten ends up be­ing a use­less weight. It’s shiny and at­tracts at­ten­tion, but it gets heavy in the form of ex­pec­ta­tion, scru­tiny, dis­trac­tion and crit­i­cism – and, some­times, dis­en­chant­ment.  The ir­re­sistible force that was the 20-year-old Tiger Woods only adds to the load. After Woods shoul­dered the NBT bur­den with such ease that he was im­me­di­ately mov­ing on to be­come golf ’s Big­gest Thing, his sup­posed suc­ces­sors have been over­whelmed by the im­plied task of do­ing some­thing re­motely sim­i­lar. Even Rory McIlroy, who won two ma­jors by eight shots by age 23, has seemed weighed down.

The cur­rent NBT, by a fair bit, is Jor­dan Spi­eth. His last birth­day on July 27 was only his 21st, which gives Spi­eth a chrono­log­i­cal “boy won­der” edge over Pa­trick Reed, who has two more PGA Tour vic­to­ries (one in a play­off with Spi­eth) but is three years older. Mat­teo Manassero is also 21 and has four vic­to­ries on the Euro­pean Tour but has strug­gled in Amer­ica and in ma­jors.

More than vic­to­ries, it is Spi­eth’s con­sis­tent high qual­ity, and an abil­ity to rise to the big oc­ca­sion, that has in­spired faith among ad­mir­ers that he is the young player best pre­pared to follow Woods’ path.

Spi­eth did just that in his first steps to promi­nence, win­ning the US Ju­nior Am­a­teur twice to join Woods as the only mul­ti­ple win­ner of that event. As a 16-yearold, Spi­eth tied for 16th in the By­ron Nel­son Cham­pi­onship, fin­ish­ing higher than Woods ever did as an am­a­teur in a PGA Tour event. In Spi­eth’s only year at the Univer­sity of Texas, the Dal­las na­tive led the Longhorns to a na­tional ti­tle, some­thing Woods didn’t do at Stan­ford.

Spi­eth fi­nally had a mis­step when he missed the sec­ond stage of Q school at the end of 2012. But he ac­cessed his clutch gene by turn­ing spon­sors’ ex­emp­tions into strong fin­ishes, earn­ing tem­po­rary mem­ber sta­tus on tour. A few months later he won the John Deere Clas­sic at 19 years, 11 months to be­come the youngest PGA Tour win­ner in 82 years, went on to fin­ish sec­ond at the Tour Cham­pi­onship, and was picked for the Pres­i­dents Cup team.

The past year has been even more dra­matic. In his first try in the Masters and the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship, Spi­eth led on Sun­day be­fore stum­bling in the mid­dle of the rounds to fin­ish T-2 and T-4. At the end of the year he won the Aus­tralian Open with a clos­ing 63, and dom­i­nated Tiger’s event, the Hero World Chal­lenge, by a mar­gin of 10 shots. Spi­eth had moved to No 9 in the world at the end of 2014.

Though very young, Spi­eth seems much older, partly be­cause he has be­come so in­grained in the golf land­scape over the past year, but mostly be­cause he’s so seem­ingly to­gether. Says Paul Azinger, a per­cep­tive ob­server: “Jor­dan Spi­eth comes off to me as a grown man.”

The com­po­nents are there. All lean mus­cle at 6-1, 84 kilo­grams, Spi­eth pos­sesses a thick­ness through his neck and up­per torso that makes him look more like a veteran base­ball player than a wil­lowy young tour pro. His fea­tures have the All-Amer­ica sym­me­try rem­i­nis­cent of ac­tor Mark Har­mon as a youth, any ado­les­cent gawk­i­ness long gone. For good

mea­sure, when Spi­eth takes off his hat on the fi­nal green to shake hands with play­ing part­ners, he re­veals a slightly re­ced­ing hair­line.

With a mi­cro­phone in front of him, Spi­eth has an easy poise and a win­ning way of blend­ing con­fi­dence with hu­mil­ity. “That ul­ti­mate goal of be­com­ing No. 1 in the world is still out there, and I’m off to a good start in achiev­ing that,” Spi­eth said be­fore fin­ish­ing T-17 at the US Open. “But it’s go­ing to take that ex­tra step that no­body else is tak­ing . . . that’s how I guess I stay fo­cused and stay grounded, be­cause I’m not win­ning. I’ve won once out of almost 40 (PGA Tour) tries now go­ing back to am­a­teur days, and those per­cent­ages aren’t very good. That’s hum­bling to me, and so I’ve just got to stay pa­tient, and my time will come.”

The most grown-up part of Spi­eth is his game. He has a so­phis­ti­cated tool­box, sav­ing strokes with in­tel­li­gent shot-shap­ing, sound judg­ment, an art­ful short game and a brave put­ter. When he’s on, he can go low, as he did with his 26-un­der­par score to win Tiger’s event. But he spe­cialises in get­ting the most out of his rounds when he’s slightly off, steeped in the abil­ity – to bor­row a bro­mide from Bobby Locke and Jack Nick­laus – to “play badly well.” It’s why Spi­eth has fin­ished among the top 10 some 25 times as a pro.

The su­pe­rior man­age­ment is im­per­a­tive for Spi­eth be­cause, so far at least, he has not shown the power that is the se­duc­tive strong suit of most of the tour’s young hot­shots. His 2014 sta­tis­ti­cal rank­ings present the raw out­line of a medium hit­ter who isn’t par­tic­u­larly pre­cise: 89th in driv­ing dis­tance, 129th in driv­ing ac­cu­racy, 146th in to­tal driv­ing, 152nd in greens in reg­u­la­tion. His club­head speed of 111.56 miles per hour (179.5kph) ranks 121st on tour. Yet in what he con­sid­ered a sub­par ball-strik­ing year and an av­er­age one putting (20th in strokes gained), Spi­eth was 14th in scor­ing.

Sub­stance over style is what gar­ners him high grades from the tour’s elite. “He’s awe­some,” says Adam Scott. “He’s got it all hap­pen­ing right now to go to the top.” Phil Mick­el­son, who im­plored Fred Cou­ples to use a cap­tain’s pick on Spi­eth in the 2013 Pres­i­dents Cup, calls him “a very rare tal­ent.” Woods, typ­i­cally terse in his com­ments about another player, re­veal­ingly used a magic word: “I think he can be great.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, sage vet­er­ans are en­thused by a young player with old-school skills.

“Jor­dan’s got it up­stairs. He knows how to play golf,” says Lee Trevino, a fel­low Dal­las res­i­dent who has had some con­ver­sa­tions with Spi­eth. “He learned in that Texas wind, like I did, so he kind of shuts the club and holds on to keep the ball low. He knows where it’s go­ing, so no rea­son he has to change. Maybe if it turned out he needed more height or dis­tance to han­dle Au­gusta, okay, then maybe change. But he went after them pretty good at Au­gusta.”

Azinger, another shut-faced player, is more ef­fu­sive. “Jor­dan is my favourite player to watch,” he says. “I think he’s a su­per­star. I like how quiet his club is at the top – it gives him a tran­si­tion that seems un­flap­pable. What­ever the sit­u­a­tion, the pace of his swing doesn’t change, he doesn’t walk faster, the look on his face doesn’t change. Some of th­ese kids with a lot of phys­i­cal tal­ent, you feel they’re sit­ting on a pow­der keg. Jor­dan Spi­eth never gives you that feel­ing.”

Not that the young man is with­out flaw. Spi­eth’s on-cam­era re­ac­tions can be off-putting when things aren’t go­ing his way. But even at his worst, dur­ing a 4/2 quar­ter­fi­nal loss to Ernie Els at the WGC-Match Play in which he was ad­mit­tedly whiny, Spi­eth won over crit­ics with self-ef­face­ment. In a post-round in­ter­view, he called him­self “a lit­tle men­tal mid­get out there,” and fol­lowed up by tweet­ing, “I’m em­bar­rassed about the way I acted on the course to­day. Played like the 13-year-old ver­sion of my­self men­tally.”

For the mo­ment, the 21-year-old ver­sion is golden. Last year, Spi­eth and his girl­friend since high school, Texas Tech se­nior An­nie Ver­ret, at­tended a White House re­cep­tion for the Pres­i­dents Cup par­tic­i­pants. Pres­i­dent Obama knew whom to use as a foil for a re­lax­ing open­ing laugh.

“Spi­eth told me that this is the first suit he’s ever bought,” the pres­i­dent said, draw­ing laugh­ter from play­ers who have also had their fun needling the tour’s youngest player. “I’m point­ing out Jor­dan now be­cause they might card him later at the re­cep­tion.”

THE SON OF ATH­LETES

Spi­eth is the prod­uct of a re­mark­able up­bring­ing. His par­ents were both col­lege ath­letes: his fa­ther, Shawn, a left-handed pitcher at Le­high in Penn­syl­va­nia; his mother, Chris, played bas­ket­ball at neigh­bour­ing Mo­ra­vian. Even as Jor­dan was slap­ping a golf ball around as early as age 4 and get­ting more se­ri­ous about the sport after his fam­ily joined Brookhaven Coun­try Club when he was 10, he was play­ing all sports with friends and his lit­tle brother, Steven, who has grown into a 6-6 shoot­ing guard at Brown Univer­sity.

“We wanted them to have fun first, but also to learn dif­fer­ent skills,” Shawn says. “Too many kids in sports are sin­gle-di­men­sional too early. What­ever sport he was play­ing, I would en­cour­age Jor­dan to get bet­ter at some­thing ev­ery month. Learn­ing to do that helps in your whole life.”

From fifth grade through

‘WE WANTED THEM TO HAVE FUN FIRST, BUT ALSO TO LEARN DIF­FER­ENT SKILLS. TOO MANY KIDS IN SPORTS ARE SIN­GLED I MEN­SIONAL TOO EARLY.’

– SHAWN SPI­ETH / JOR­DAN’S DAD

high school, Spi­eth was part of a group of friends who re­mained team­mates in ev­ery sea­son in the com­pet­i­tive Dal­las youth-sports en­vi­ron­ment. Says Shawn: “It turned out to be a valu­able op­por­tu­nity for them to learn how to win with a skill set other than the one in their first sport, rather than just dom­i­nate.”

“A few guys were ex­tremely tal­ented, so we won a lot in dif­fer­ent sports,” says Jor­dan, who through eighth grade ex­celled as a left-handed pitcher with a va­ri­ety of pitches as well as a shoot­ing guard in bas­ket­ball. “To be able to have win­ning in your blood grow­ing up, whether it was pound­ing my lit­tle brother or try­ing to beat my dad in some­thing, or just com­pet­ing on teams with my friends, it was non­stop. And I think that’s what shaped me to de­sire to have that each week. And it’s why I be­lieve in golf, even when things seem im­pos­si­ble, that I can al­ways get it done.”

Another ma­jor for­ma­tive in­flu­ence in Spi­eth’s life is his younger sis­ter, El­lie, 13, who was born with a neuro- log­i­cal disorder. Jor­dan calls her “the best thing that ever hap­pened to our fam­ily,” and though he now lives away from the home where he grew up, he vis­its fre­quently and al­ways brings El­lie some­thing from his lat­est tour­na­ment stops.

“Grow­ing up with El­lie has helped Jor­dan and Steven both have that qual­ity of not be­ing self-cen­tred,” Shawn says. “In sports, there are cer­tainly some ben­e­fits to hav­ing ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing fo­cused on you. It can help get you there faster, and usu­ally that’s what it takes to be the very best at any­thing. But it can also be harm­ful. Over a long ca­reer, I think bal­ance and per­spec­tive, more times than not, will make you hap­pier, whether you end up be­ing the very best or not. If Jor­dan doesn’t ever be­come No 1, he’ll know that’s only a piece of life, not all of life.”

Lanny Wad­kins is a friend of the Spi­eth fam­ily through his son Tucker, who played ju­nior golf with Jor­dan. “They’re won­der­ful peo­ple who taught their two boys some great val­ues be­cause of El­lie,” Wad­kins says. “It’s re­ally easy when you’re re­ally good at some­thing to take it for granted. Be­cause of his sis­ter, Jor­dan re­ally ap­pre­ci­ates what he has, and it helps him work harder. To be hon­est, I think that’s a big part of what makes him so spe­cial.”

The per­son who over­sees Spi­eth’s work is his coach, Cameron McCormick. A 41-year-old Aus­tralian, McCormick came to Amer­ica to play col­lege golf but lost his game by mak­ing what he con­sid­ered proper tech­ni­cal form more im­por­tant than func­tion.

“The way I tried to get bet­ter is not the way peo­ple get bet­ter,” McCormick says. He went on an “ed­u­ca­tional odyssey about the pil­lars of per­for­mance” with an em­pha­sis on how hu­mans best learn mo­tor skills. For the past decade he has given lessons at Brook Hol­low Golf Club in Dal­las, where Shawn brought a 12-year-old Jor­dan a few weeks after the boy had shot 62 on a reg­u­la­tion course. The two have re­mained a team, with no in­di­ca­tion they will stray from the kind of life­long re­la­tion­ship Nick­laus had with Jack Grout, and Ben Cren­shaw had with Har­vey Penick.

McCormick’s ap­proach is to make con­stant progress while re­spect­ing Spi­eth’s swing “finger­print” and mak­ing what al­ready works more re­peat­able. They ad­dress his

‘TO BE ABLE TO HAVE WIN­NING IN YOUR BLOOD GROW­ING UP, WHETHER IT WAS POUND­ING MY LIT­TLE BROTHER OR TRY­ING TO BEAT MY DAD IN SOME­THING... IT WAS NON­STOP.’

—JOR­DAN SPI­ETH

most re­cur­ring bad habit – a slid­ing of the right hip away from the tar­get on the back­swing, lead­ing to an overly up­right plane – but ba­si­cally leave alone the quirky grip and rad­i­cal rolling of the left foot through im­pact that can of­fend purists. Spi­eth is de­vel­op­ing speed with gym work rather than al­ter­ing the dis­tinc­tive “chicken wing” ac­tion of his left arm de­signed to in­hibit club­head ro­ta­tion.

“A key to our suc­cess has been a com­plete trust be­cause we’ve known each other for so long,” Spi­eth says. “I’m able to ex­plain what I be­lieve is go­ing on, and Cam’s so great at re­lat­ing to me that he’ll sug­gest a drill that cre­ates a so­lu­tion. Or if there are cer­tain things I’m work­ing on that I’m not lik­ing, I’ll voice it to him. Maybe it comes off im­ma­ture from me at times be­cause I’ll be very frus­trated about what hap­pened on the course. But I know he’s go­ing to give me another way to look at it that will let me take it to the course the next day.”

McCormick says he does a lot more lis­ten­ing than talk­ing, and he likes to give Spi­eth plenty of lee­way for self-dis­cov­ery. It was the stu­dent’s idea to switch to a left-hand-low putting grip at 13, as was his sud­den decision in 2013 to some­times look at the hole while stroking short putts. When McCormick does sug­gest some­thing, it still has to be as­sessed through Spi­eth’s fil­ter.

“A tour player and his teacher have a del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween pro­fi­ciency and im­prove­ment that we’re try­ing to weigh all the time,” McCormick says. “What is the cost of get­ting bet­ter in terms of time and per­for­mance? What’s worth it, and what isn’t? Jor­dan does that cal­cu­la­tion very well. It’s ul­ti­mately not about what I want, but what he wants and thinks he can do that is most im­por­tant.”

What Spi­eth most wants is cor­rect­ing what­ever caused his late fades at the Masters and the Play­ers. “That’s the frus­trat­ing thing now,” he says, “be­cause I’d been able to close out more of­ten in what­ever I did than I am now.”

Of course, Spi­eth might be too hard on him­self. Nick­laus watched him lose to Bubba Wat­son at Au­gusta and re­lated it to when he was 20 and lost the fi­nal­round lead at the 1960 US Open, fin­ish­ing sec­ond to Arnold Palmer.

“You get to the pin­na­cle at age 20, it’s hard to keep grow­ing and be­lieve in your mind that you need to work,” Nick­laus says. “So it was the best thing that ever hap­pened to me.’’

Adds Wad­kins: “Jor­dan should let him­self set­tle in and not put too much pres­sure on him­self. Once he wins a tour­na­ment with a lead go­ing into the last day, he’ll learn that there’s a knack to that.”

Then again, nei­ther ap­a­thy nor low­ered ex­pec­ta­tions have ever been part of Spi­eth’s ap­proach. He has pushed hard and aimed high, but none of the re­wards or bur­dens on the way to be­com­ing the Next Big Thing have proved too heavy. Per­haps even the great­ness he craves won’t be.

Spi­eth “went after them pretty good at Au­gusta,” says Lee Trevino, adding, “Jor­dan’s got it up­stairs.”

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