RECENTLY, SI took an informal survey of Tour players to find out what they like most about the game of baby-faced Jordan Spieth, whose 2013 season was the PGA Tour's most audacious debut since Tiger Woods's emergence in 1996.
This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2013 issue
"Just his composure," said Steve Stricker. "I think he's got it all together. You know, he doesn't seem like he's 20 years old. He seems more mature than that."
"It's the maturity," said Zach Johnson. "Meaning not letting emotion get involved on the course and just keep plugging along."
"He's very mature," said Jason Day. "He doesn't hit a shot until he's committed. It takes a lot to learn that. It's taken me a good five or six years to finally understand that."
"The most impressive part about his game is his maturity," said Graham DeLaet. "I was paired with him in Houston [last March] and he hit the ball poorly, yet he still shot five or six under. I was like, This kid has already figured out how to play the game. The physical abilities are there, but what's most impressive is his mental toughness."
Spieth (rhymes with teeth) has always been an old soul. He was raised in Dallas to be a Texas gentleman—sir and ma'am were built into his vocabulary, and community service was stressed through school and church. He developed a broader perspective at age seven when his sister, Ellie, was born with a neurological disorder and spent her first month in the NICU. Jordan visited her every day. "He saw firsthand how some of those kids never got to go home," says his father, Shawn. By his teens Spieth was golf's can't-miss kid, but he never took himself too seriously because, he says, "in my family it's never been about me." He and Ellie have a very sweet, especially close relationship. She attends a school for developmentally disabled kids, and when he was in high school Jordan regularly volunteered in her classrooms. Now that he has gotten his first taste of fame and fortune, he is not shopping for Bugattis but rather talking about setting up a foundation to benefit special-needs children.
"The reality of a star golfer is not the reality of 99.9999% of people on this planet," says swing coach Cameron McCormick, who began ministering to Spieth when he was 12. "Ellie inspires Jordan; she grounds him; she makes it easy for him to detach from the artificial world of tournament golf. She's a big key to who he is as a person."
The 6'1", 185-pound Spieth is a product of nature and nurture. Shawn was a pitcher and a first baseman at Lehigh, and his wife, Chris, played basketball and field hockey for Division III Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa. Their firstborn was blessed with what McCormick calls "a cocktail of gifts. Jordan has tremendous motor skills and coordination, and he has an innate understanding of how his body is moving through time and space." As a kid, Spieth gravitated toward team sports; he was a shooting guard with three-point range and a lefty with a filthy curveball. His childhood friends include Jeff Schoettmer, a starting linebacker at North Carolina, and Brian Wetzel, a wide receiver at Fordham who this year set a school record with 14 touchdown catches. "We were always on the same teams, and we hardly ever lost at anything," says Spieth. "Winning has been a big part of my life since I was five years old."
Spieth was also shaped by front-yard warfare with his little brother, Steven, a 6'6" freshman small forward at Brown. "I remember quite a few of our afternoons ended with one of us having a bloody nose," Steven says with a laugh. "Out in the street we'd play Rollerblade hockey, football, soccer, pretty much anything where we could compete against each other."
Jordan didn't focus exclusively on golf until he was 12, the year he shot a 62, and even then his parents were careful to bring him along slowly. With a nod to Earl Woods, Shawn says, "There was a pretty simple model that made sense: Have success before you move on to the next level." By his sophomore year at Dallas Jesuit Prep, Jordan was one of the best players in a golfing-rich state. "High school is where I learned how to win," Spieth says. "It's a one-round shootout, and I was always matched against the other team's best player. It gives you a mind-set that you have to get it done no matter what." He won the individual state championship as a sophomore, junior and senior and spent his summers winning two U.S. Juniors; he and Woods are that national championship's only multiple winners. Spieth's current caddie, Michael Greller, looped for him at the 2011 U.S. Junior. "When Jordan walked on the range every head would turn," says Greller. "He just carried himself differently. He'd dominated at every level so he exuded this incredible confidence. It was never cockiness, just a businesslike attitude about winning."
WHEN HE was 16, Spieth received a sponsor's exemption to play in his hometown PGA Tour event, the Byron Nelson Championship. He was tied for eighth going into the final round and finished 16th, a spectacular performance that nonetheless left him a tad disappointed. "He honestly believed he was going to win," says Steven.
Spieth matriculated at Texas, and the results were predictable: As a freshman he earned first-team All-America honors and led the Longhorns to the 2012 national championship, their first since 1972. With the PGA Tour on the verge of radically changing its qualifying procedure, he turned pro midway through his sophomore year, hoping to play his way through the three-stage Q school. Exempt into the second stage, he admits he was overwhelmed by the pressure, and after he bombed out, he had no playing status on the developmental Web.com circuit, let alone the PGA Tour. It was the first setback in an otherwise charmed career, but Spieth remains grateful for the experience: "I learned a lot about trusting my abilities and filtering the outside distractions."
He wrote to tournament directors pleading for sponsor's exemptions; per Tour rules he was limited to seven until he earned the equivalent of 150th place on the previous year's money list ($474,295). Spieth was again under tremendous pressure to perform, and this time he did. In his third event, in Puerto Rico, he tied for second and bagged a cool $308,000. The following week, at the Tampa Bay Championship, he holed a high-degree-of-difficulty flop shot on the 71st hole to propel himself to a seventh-place tie, earning $149,000 and special membership status that allowed him to receive unlimited exemptions for the rest of the year. At the AT&T National in late June, he jarred a 129-yard shot from a fairway bunker on the 1st hole of the final round, ultimately finishing sixth. "The kid has a lot of Hollywood in him," says McCormick.
Spieth continued his fine play through the summer, buoyed by Ellie's presence in his galleries for the first time. "She's always been my biggest supporter, and I always wanted her to come watch me," he says. "It's really, really cool that she's able to handle herself well enough to be at a tournament. She loves to stand between holes and yell 'Go, Jordan!' when I walk by. She gets loud. A couple of times I was over a putt and she yelled it and I had to back off. I would just smile, because how can you not love that enthusiasm?"
By the end of the John Deere Classic in July, Jordanmania wasn't confined to his immediate family—it was sweeping the golf world. He holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole that got him into a playoff, then outlasted Johnson and David Hearn in five holes of sudden death. Spieth was only 19, the youngest winner on Tour in 82 years. In six months he'd gone from having no status to being a certified star, yet he refused to lose his focus. Winning the Deere earned Spieth a spot in the next week's British Open, so he hopped a red-eye to Scotland and headed directly to Muirfield for a practice round. At some point his caddie wanted to reminisce about their triumph, but Spieth cut him off. Says Greller, "He calmly said, 'Listen, we're at one of the four biggest tournaments of the year. I'm not here to talk about the past.' " Even if it was a mere 12 hours earlier.
Shawn believes his son's intensity is the key to understanding his uncanny ability to come through in the clutch. "What I've observed is that he embraces the opportunity and he's able to focus to the point where he can get everything out of his abilities," Shawn says. "The bigger the crowd, the greater the pressure, the more he seems to relax."
As the summer wore on Spieth drew increasing support to be one of two captain's selections on the 12-man U.S. Presidents Cup team. The Deutsche Bank Championship was the final event before Fred Couples would make his picks. Needing to make a strong impression, Spieth fired a career-low 62 in the final round. He was playing for the first time with Phil Mickelson, and minutes after the round Lefty whipped out his phone and urged Couples to pick the kid. (He wisely took the advice, and Spieth went 2--2 in the matches.) After the round Spieth was packing his stuff when a rain delay brought a horde of colleagues into the locker room, and he was enveloped with praise and congratulations. "That was a cool moment," he says. "To have the respect of my peers means everything to me. That's when I knew I belonged out here."
UNDER ARMOUR made a big bet on Spieth coming out of college, and now he's the key to its burgeoning golf apparel division. Last month Spieth buzzed into Baltimore to press flesh at the company campus and test out gear. In a room set to minus 3.4°, he sampled the latest cold-weather layering and offered feedback on the elasticity of the material. He met with the architects of the prototype for the company's first golf shoe, saying, "I wore 'em at Pine Valley and Augusta, and they were frickin' awesome." Then, after a pause he asked, "Is it tacky to name-drop courses like that?"
Meeting with a half dozen clothing designers, he looked over his latest options for 2014. Under Armour is not known for its restraint; one staffer said the company was going for more of an "oh, s--- factor." Spieth nixed anything in neon colors or with busy designs. "I kind of like what I grew up with," he said. Sensing the deflation in the room, he added, "I'm sorry about that. Hey, I never thought I'd wear a red hat. See, I'm coming around!"
Spieth is inherently conservative ("the world's oldest 20-year-old," in the words of his trainer, Damon Goddard). He finished 10th on the Tour money list—$3.9 million in just 23 starts—and along the way added lucrative deals with Titleist and Rolex, but so far his only splurge has been Dallas Cowboys season tickets. He dates his high school sweetheart, Annie Verret, a sophomore at Texas Tech and rolls in a 2008 Yukon with 110,000 miles on the odometer. Equipment companies threw money at him when he turned pro, but he waited until September to commit to Titleist because he didn't want to be tinkering with new sticks while he was chasing his Tour card. "I don't really like change," he says.
His focus for this off-season is power. He ranked 18th on Tour in driving accuracy but 80th in distance, at 289.4 yards a pop. So Spieth spent the four weeks after the Presidents Cup pushing heavy metal in old-school lifts. "His strength has increased exponentially," says Goddard. Now Spieth is in the midst of three weeks of speed training, tossing around 30-pound medicine balls and doing plyometric exercises. The goal is to increase his clubhead speed by two or three miles an hour. "That translates to 10 extra yards," he says. "That would be huge." The PGA Tour's all-around ranking takes into account dozens of stats, and Spieth was third in 2013, behind only Woods and Stricker. As such, Spieth has to search hard to find ways to improve. In poring over his data he discovered that pitches from 10 to 20 yards were a weakness. "I realized those were usually the third shots on par-5s," he says. "Often you're going to a flag tucked behind a bunker or over a ridge, and I had a tendency to be too conservative. So I'm working hard on that shot."
This attention to detail should help Spieth achieve goals that he admits are "very, very high"; for 2014 his focus is on contending at the major championships. Long term, "he wants to be one of the best players of all time," says Steven. "He's always thought like that. Even as a kid, Jordan had a pretty clear sense of where he was going."
Right now his favorite destination is not his new house in uptown Dallas—"it's mostly an investment," he says. No, Spieth prefers to spend time at his parents' place, where he can be replenished by his mother's cooking and his sister's laughter. There, a different side of Jordan is on display. "When we hear all this talk about his maturity, Chris and I have a little chuckle," says Shawn. "He still leaves his dirty dishes around the house."
This time last year Spieth was fighting for a place on Tour. Now, with Woods and Mickelson approaching the last acts of their careers, he's poised to be the fresh-scrubbed face of American golf. But as easy as Spieth has made it look, he still has a few things left to learn.
"I'm pretty sure he doesn't know how to use a laundry machine," says Shawn. "He still expects his mom to do his dirty clothes." Spieth, and his golf game, are certainly mature. It's scary to imagine what he will accomplish when he really grows up.
One Giant Leap
JORDAN SPIETH BEGAN 2013 WITH NO STATUS ON THE PGA TOUR AND 809TH IN THE WORLD RANKING. BY SEASON'S END HE HAD ROCKETED TO 21ST
1. JAN. 27
Farmers Insurance Open / MC
2. FEB. 24
Panama Claro Championship* / T-7
3. MARCH 3
Colombia Championship* / T-4
4. MARCH 10
Puerto Rico Open / T-2
5. MARCH 17
Tampa Bay Championship / T-7
6. MAY 26
Crowne Plaza Invitational / T-7
7. JUNE 30
AT&T National / 6
8. JULY 14
John Deere Classic / Won
9. JULY 21
British Open / 44
10. AUG. 18
Wyndham Championship / 2
11. SEPT. 2
Deutsche Bank / T-4
12. SEPT. 22
Tour Championship / T-2
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
*Web.com tour event
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