Judging by his on-course play, there is reason to worry about Spieth at this Ryder Cup. But normal rules don't apply to a player like Jordan Spieth.
SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Players’ press conferences are held in quick succession before the Ryder Cup, and Wednesday afternoon, Jordan Spieth took the baton from Bubba Watson and immediately smacked Watson on the head with it.
“You might use small words,” Spieth said, “but you use a lot of them.”
This, Spieth noted, was quite a crack coming from him. Spieth never met a sentence he couldn’t turn into a paragraph. And in his detailed answers Wednesday, he provided the answer to the big question that nobody directly asked him:
If you are an American golf fan, should you be nervous about Jordan Spieth?
Here is why you should be nervous: Spieth has not won an event since the 2017 British Open. He played so far below expectations this year that he missed last week’s Tour Championship, which meant he only played 24 events this year, one below the PGA Tour’s required minimum of 25. The Tour could have fined or suspended Spieth, but fining him would mean nothing and suspending him would be counterproductive—the point of the rule is to make these guys show up. The Tour announced last week that it has a top-secret solution. We can only hope that involved Spieth, who won a national championship at Texas, wearing a shirt that says “BOOMER SOONER.”
The most disturbing development for Spieth this year: his putter betrayed him so much, I’m surprised it didn’t run off with his fiancée.
And here is why you should not be nervous: He is Jordan Spieth. He has reached that rare golfing level where the normal rules do not apply to him—especially at a Ryder Cup. As Webb Simpson said Wednesday, “We’re more nervous here than at any other tournament.” Simpson also said that some players who haven’t been playing well end up playing great at the Ryder Cup.
Of course we don’t know how Spieth will play this week. That is true of everybody. But we can say, with confidence, that he will not stumble over the biggest hurdle at every Ryder Cup: nerves.
Part of the brilliance of Spieth is that the big stages feel like small stages to him. He admitted to a flicker of nervousness in his first Ryder Cup match, at Gleneagles in Scotland, but seemed genuinely confused by the notion that he might be nervous for this one. Asking Spieth if he will be nervous for the Ryder Cup is like asking a Frenchman if he is nervous speaking French.
Spieth doesn’t seem to understand why anybody would let nerves affect them this week, even the rookies:
“I don't think a little extra noise cheering for the other side will tone down their ability to be able to perform … and therefore, I don't see, based on my experience from 2014, being paired with another rookie [Patrick Reed], it seemed to light a fire for us. Once we got out there and loved kind of the way that camaraderie worked out, we were able to roll.”
There are two ways to view Spieth’s year: ours and his. Both involve disappointment, of course, but Spieth’s belief in himself has apparently never wavered. He opened the Masters with 66, closed with 64 and finished third. He led the British Open after three rounds, and even after he shot a birdieless 76 on Sunday, he was not dismayed. He said he had made a ton of progress and would soon play the best golf his career. Yes, he said, better than 2015, when he won the Masters and U.S. Open (and Tour Championship) and became a worldwide phenomenon.
When he needed to play well to qualify for the Tour Championship, he insisted, “I just have to play normal.” He failed to do that, but he said Wednesday that was mostly a product of exhaustion from playing or practicing for almost a month straight: “My game was in the best state that it had been in until the [BMW Championship], and I kind of just ran out of gas there."
Denial? You can say that if you like. But an essential ingredient in sporting greatness is to believe in yourself even when logic says you shouldn’t. Spieth has that. U.S. captain Jim Furyk can pair him with Patrick Reed, or longtime friend Justin “Yes, I’m Jordan Spieth’s Longtime Friend, Why Does Everybody Keep Bringing That Up?” Thomas, or really almost anybody else, and know that Spieth will show up with a clear mind. He would pair nicely with Thomas, who also does not let nerves affect him, but occasionally gets so amped up that he tries to hit drives 400 yards instead of a more reasonable 330.
Two of Spieth’s answers Wednesday said something about him, and neither was really about him. He was asked about the U.S.’ failure to win a Ryder Cup in Europe since 1993, and he said, “There are only two guys that have any kind of scar tissue, and those guys have won 120 times.” He meant Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, of course, who have combined for 123 PGA Tour wins. And the message was: Guys like that don’t worry.
Spieth is only 25, but he’s a guy like that already. Even in a bad year. Missing the Tour Championship was probably good for him—he took a week off completely, then practiced for a week. And yes, he also watched Woods win for the first time since 2013. While other golfers talked about how amazing it was to watch Woods, Spieth had more practical concerns: He was worried the galleries on the 18th hole at East Lake would close quickly and engulf Woods and Rory McIlroy. Sure, Spieth thought it was cool that Tiger won. But nothing in golf is too big a deal to him, and that’s why you should always believe in Jordan Spieth.