Jordan Spieth may never top what he did in 2015, but bet against him at your own risk
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2015 issue
DESPITE ITS grandiose name, the Hero World Challenge is not a big-time golf tournament. The field is limited to 18 players, and there's no cut. Adding to the laid-back feel was this year's venue: a swank resort in the Bahamas. At the tail end of one of the greatest years in golf history, Jordan Spieth would have loved nothing more than to spend the week after Thanksgiving plopped on his couch in Dallas, but instead he flew directly from the Australian Open to the World Challenge to honor his duties as the defending champ and to pay respect to the tournament host, Tiger Woods.
Spieth, 22, didn't pretend the tournament was anything but a working vacation. During a practice round he tormented the group behind him by trying to catch their approach shots in his hat. He spent the eve of the tournament boating with Rickie Fowler and Zach Johnson and plunged 20 feet from the deck into the warm ocean. Spieth didn't bother to shave for much of the week, and the golden stubble made him look older ... maybe 17. Other than a little preround loosening up, he didn't hit balls.
Yet as burned out as Spieth was, his demeanor changed every time he reached the 1st tee. His piercing blue eyes disappeared into a slit, his hat tugged low. It was little wonder that at this year's Masters, Ben Crenshaw compared Spieth to Wyatt Earp. With nothing left to give, Spieth aced the 2nd hole and brawled his way to an opening 67, one off the lead. Over the next two days he summoned 11 birdies and an eagle to hang tough in fifth place.
Before the final round Johnson was asked to identify the most impressive thing Spieth had accomplished this year. Johnson didn't cite the game-changing blowout at the Masters or the gritty 72nd-hole triumph at the U.S. Open or the thrilling pursuit of history at the British Open. He didn't mention Spieth's three other victories, the FedEx Cup championship or the $22 million in winnings. No, Johnson picked the second round at the Heritage, five days after the Masters. Spieth had arrived at Hilton Head after a whirlwind media tour of New York City and opened the tournament with an unfocused 74. The next day he came out "pissed off," in the words of his caddie, Michael Greller, and shot a 62. "What I admire most about him," said Johnson, "are the intangibles: the grind, the heart, the ability to get the ball in the hole no matter what."
During the final round of the World Challenge, Jordan again did Jordan things, birdieing five of the first 12 holes by pouring in a series of long-range putts that had his playing partner, Bill Haas, chuckling and shaking his head. Spieth surged into second place, within two strokes of Bubba Watson. On the 13th hole Spieth stuffed his approach shot to six feet, and a comeback victory began to feel inevitable. But the fatigue finally caught up with him. He had been struggling all week with his putting alignment, so he was using a line on his ball to get set up, which he almost never does. On the 13th he decided to putt by feel, without the line, and missed badly. Just like that, all the adrenaline seemed to drain out of him, and he had to scramble to par in while Watson pulled away.
Spieth hates to lose more than he loves to win, and throughout this season he has resisted every opportunity for reflection, training his hyperfocus only on the next shot, the next round, the next tournament. Walking up the 18th fairway at the World Challenge, Greller said, "Hey, man, it's been an honor to be in the passenger seat sitting shotgun for this ride. Thanks for everything."
"No. Thank you," Spieth replied. "It's been a team effort."
With 2015 in the books it is time to examine the most tantalizing question in golf: Did Jordan Spieth peak at 22, or will he continue to own the game? Back in Dallas his trainer, Damon Goddard, offered a clue: "Vacation's over. It's time for Jordan to get his ass back in the gym, and he knows it. We've already got something set up for the morning after he gets home."
SPIETH WAS a PGA Tour rookie in 2013, the year Woods won five times and was player of the year. At the World Challenge, Woods was a forlorn figure, shuffling slowly from event to event, still on the mend from his third back surgery in the last 19 months. He turns 40 on Dec. 30, and in the Bahamas, in his rawest press conference in years, he offered a glum assessment of the future. The Woods epoch is clearly over, but Spieth will continue to be measured against his predecessor in the same way Tiger was against Jack Nicklaus.
In the last quarter century Woods is the only player who has had a season like the one Spieth just had, although that doesn't give Tiger his due: His 2000 is the greatest year in golf history, his '06 was arguably superior to Spieth's '15, and Woods's '02 and '05 are comparable. Woods has always been a role model for Spieth (on the course, at least), and the admiration has only grown now that he's in the maw of the machine. Asked to cite Woods's greatest influence, Spieth says, "The way he was able to bring it in the majors. Really, he brought it in every tournament. You know, what we were able to do this season he did for 15 years straight."
Woods has always been complimentary toward Spieth, but there has never been a satisfactory passing-of-the-baton moment on the course. So for now, the third round in the Bahamas will have to do. "I make bogey at 5," says Spieth, "and as I'm coming off I hear, 'Don't worry, you'll get it back.' If you had told me four years ago, when I was in college, that Tiger would be sitting in a cart watching me play ... I mean, that was just weird."
Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Jason Day were all candidates to usurp Woods, but Spieth has become The Guy because he and Woods are exactly alike in the most crucial respect: They have fought harder than anyone else on every stroke, aided by a sense of the moment that allows them to seemingly will the ball into the hole. Fledgling Tour pro Brooks Koepka says of Spieth, "He's unbelievable the way he thinks his way around the course. He makes all these clutch putts: a 25-footer to get the round going or 15 feet for a crucial par save. I guess you could say it reminds you of Tiger."
But while Woods could overpower a course—as Nicklaus did, to say nothing of Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer—Spieth doesn't have that luxury. According to the PGA Tour, for the 2015 season Spieth ranked 78th in driving distance (291.8 yards), 80th in driving accuracy (62.9%) and 49th in greens in regulation (67.9%). That's the portrait of a shorter hitter who's not particularly accurate with his driver or his irons. Yet this notion of Spieth as a cream puff who steals victories with a molten putter is a fallacy born of outdated statistics.
Mark Broadie is a Columbia professor who with his revolutionary strokes-gained stats has become the Bill James of golf. Broadie paints a much more nuanced picture of a player's performance relative to the competition. The Tour uses only two drives per round to derive its distance stat, but Broadie aggregates every drive, then adjusts for the venue. (Spieth, for example, didn't play in Reno and thus didn't get the substantial statistical bump from its thin air and baked fairways.) According to Broadie's stats, Spieth was 29th on Tour in driving distance, at 281.5 a pop, seven yards better than the Tour average. He also hit 0.4 fairways a round more than the Tour average while avoiding the big miss that plagues many of the titanium-denting free swingers. Powerful and precise, the Spieth of Broadie's ledger gained 0.6 strokes per round with his tee shots; only 13 players ranked higher. His numbers for approach shots were identical: 0.6 strokes gained per round, ranking 14th. Traditional greens-in-regulation stats treat every miss the same, but Spieth is a cerebral player who time and again leaves his ball in the correct place while attacking at the most opportune times.
"Spieth has as much of an advantage with the longer clubs as he does with the putter," says Broadie. And Spieth can still look forward to a growth spurt in his ball striking.
"Jordan will get more distance in the gym, not on the range," says Goddard. "There's still so much room for improvement physically."
Two years ago, the 6'1" Spieth was a lanky 175 pounds. He's now up to 187 pounds, and his target playing weight for 2016 is 191 pounds. (Not for nothing, Woods says he didn't reach physical maturity until he was 25, which came at the tail end of his epic 2000 campaign.) With the extra muscle, Spieth hopes to raise his ball speed by 2 mph. According to his swing coach, Cameron McCormick, Spieth's carry distance with the driver is in the 280s; the additional 2 mph would raise it to as much as 295 yards. "That would be a big deal," says Greller. "He could take on more doglegs, take on more bunkers. When you're trying to shave off tenths of a stroke, consistently having a shorter iron in your hands would be a huge help."
As good as Spieth's short game is, he is focused on tightening it up further. He ranked only 84th on Tour in proximity to the hole out of the sand (9'6"), so McCormick has devised a series of drills to help Spieth hone his spin rates and trajectories. Spieth also has a deficiency in his 100-yard game: When playing softer greens, he has a tendency to put too much spin on his approaches. At the World Challenge he was vexed when his wedge shots repeatedly ripped backward on the marshmallow-soft greens. "It's frustrating not to execute," Spieth says, "but at the same time I like having that weakness exposed, because it gives me direction in what I need to work on."
"I love that passion and drive and desire and that honesty," says Paul Casey. "Ultimately, I think it's the honesty that will keep [Spieth] on top of the game for a very long time. You've got to have supreme confidence in your abilities, but at the same time you can't be blind. That's what Tiger was great at—he was never satisfied. Jordan is exactly the same way."
IN OCTOBER the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation hosted a fund-raising gala at TPC Las Colinas, outside Dallas. The foundation has targeted three causes that are meaningful to him: junior golf, military veterans and kids with special needs. Spieth was deeply involved in every aspect of the event, as were his parents, Shawn and Chris. During a performance by one of Spieth's favorite country singers, Wade Bowen, the tournament host do-si-do'd on the dance floor with his younger sister, Ellie, who has a neurological disorder. Everyone in attendance pretty much melted. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised.
Spieth's family is the foundation of his success, and his girlfriend adds more stability: He remains committed to his high school sweetheart, Annie Verret. If shoes are a window into the soul, it is instructive to note that Verret prefers to walk the course in Converse All-Stars. She didn't arrive in the Bahamas until the day of the second round. "I have to use my vacation days wisely," she says. Verret works as an event coordinator at the First Tee of Greater Dallas. One of her primary tasks is fund-raising for a $3 million learning center. Uh, Annie, have you considered hitting up Under Armour for a donation? "I like to keep my personal life and professional life separate," she says.
The tightly knit, fiercely loyal team around Spieth is united in its focus to help him nurture his gifts. Spieth's peers also recognize that they are witnessing something special. "I mean, what he did last year is a great career for most people," says Jimmy Walker, who, indeed, has five victories in 10 years on Tour.
Johnson, who held off Woods to win the 2007 Masters, had an up-close view of the last once-in-a-lifetime talent. "Jordan has the intangibles, the it factor, we haven't seen since Tiger," Johnson says. "Does that mean he's going to do this for 12 or 15 straight years? I don't have that answer. You don't have that answer. I'm not sure even Jordan does. But it's going to be fascinating to see where he goes from here."
Spieth was already looking ahead as he departed the Bahamas. Despite his best efforts not to care, he was a bit ticked off after his rally was blunted. "Maybe not winning was a good thing," he said. "I'm going to look at it positively. I can't settle, not when everybody else is playing at such a high level. They're going to carry that into next season, so if I want to stay at the top, I'm going to have to outwork them."
With that, Spieth shook hands with the assembled reporters, presented an autographed ball to his walking scorer and disappeared into a boundless future.
Jordan Spieth has played in only 11 majors as a professional, but his record to date is arguably better than Tiger Woods's at the same stage in his career. Still, Spieth will be hard-pressed to keep pace. Beginning with his 12th start, Woods won five of the next six majors.
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