Q&A with Cameron McCormick: The coach behind the phenomenal rise of Jordan Spieth
One of the big stories in golf this year was the arrival of Jordan Spieth, a former junior wunderkind who played his way onto the PGA Tour and into the top 25 in the World Ranking despite starting the year with no status on Tour. He had to play in a qualifier just to get into the qualifier to get into the early-season Farmers Insurance Open.
Spieth was a U.S. Junior Amateur champion and, you may recall, played his way into contention twice as a local Dallas amateur invited to compete in the Byron Nelson Championship. He went on to the University of Texas, where he led the Longhorns to an NCAA championship as a freshman. Early in his sophomore season he decided to turn pro, but he didn't make it through Q-school.
You know the rest. Spieth took advantage of some sponsor's exemptions and played exceptionally well. He finished second in Puerto Rico, seventh at Tampa, ninth at Harbour Town and went on quite a spree during the summer. He won the John Deere Classic in a playoff after holing out an unlikely bunker shot on the 72nd hole. He competed for the U.S. team in the Presidents Cup. He's already a star at 20, casting a spotlight on not only himself but also his instructor, Cameron McCormick, an Australian who'd already been building a solid reputation in the Dallas area before Spieth fell into his lap.
Here are some highlights of my recent interview with McCormick about his teaching methods and, of course, his star pupil:
Gary Van Sickle: Tell me about your career as a pro golfer.
Cameron McCormick: My career as a fabulous golfer was nonexistent. I graduated from Texas Tech in 1997 and spent two years trying to play. I went to Q-school twice in Australia and didn't make it through. I didn't make enough money to justify pursuing it. It didn't work out. I was chasing that dream for a few years and I ran out of money.
Did you think you were good enough?
Parts of my game were good enough. I was hoping it would come together. I didn't have a coach. That was hard. It was tough to analyze what my skills were and what they needed to be.
If you could go back in time and coach yourself, what would you work on?
I'd have myself be far less focused on mechanics. I started golf very late, at 15 years old… I got quite good, really good, through my two junior college years -- good enough so Texas Tech offered me a golf scholarship. I went there and honestly got distracted by the environment. I was an introvert in Australia and focused on what I wanted to achieve in life versus girls and having fun, and Texas Tech changed that for me. I might sound regretful but I'm really not. It was the novelty of having an Australian on campus and being somewhat unique, I guess.
Girls dig an accent?
Yeah, they certainly do. I was unique in Lubbock and I was unique in a small rural town outside of Wichita. Then for some reason I got absorbed in technical pursuit. Maybe it was because Nick Faldo and Greg Norman were prominent at the time. Without a coach telling me those things aren't necessarily important, I got absorbed. I couldn't see past the technique to the critical mass, which is, skills trump style. That's what I'd tell myself. I was a very good ball-control player but at Texas Tech, I thought, "Gosh, I need to improve my technique to compete with these guys."
How did you transition from playing to teaching?
I got a job as a shop assistant at a local Dallas club that had an Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. That was a good window into the possibility of the lifestyle.
Did you learn from watching the teachers there?
Yes. After 18 months, a job came open at a private club, Dallas Country Club, one of the best clubs in town. I started teaching a lot at Dallas C.C. I'd do 40 hours a week in the shop and another 15 to 25 hours a week teaching. It was a quick trial by fire on what works and what doesn't work and do I like to do this? And I did. I got some good word of mouth and some good results. I was there three and a half years. Brook Hollow, a similar club a few miles down the road, was hiring an assistant-in the fall of 2003, I became a full-time teaching pro. When I turned 30, I wrote renowned teachers in golf and asked, "Would you mind if I came and watched you work?" I wrote Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter and Randy Smith and others. Over the course of six months, I traveled around the country and observed these great coaches and gained an appreciation of what makes them great.
What did you learn?
There were three lessons. The first was validation and confirmation that it's a lot about training skills versus training styles. The second was communication and relationships are paramount. They shouldn't be overlooked. If all you're doing is textbooks about how to swing, you don't develop the social skills to interact with players. And then you won't develop the notoriety and the clientele and the repeat business that you get from being a successful communicator and coach. The last thing was you must be able to coach players up to a greater level of performance to capture a wider audience. Being around Butch Harmon, I realized people came to him because he helped people who were already great players. Unless I coached players who were already AJGA All-Americans, I wasn't going to attract other All-Americans. You need to get mentioned on the Golf Channel or get published in a monthly golf magazine or something.
Were you apprehensive that you wouldn't get responses?
Oh, sure. I sent them out to the top 75 coaches in the country and I got 25 or 30 responses. Out of those 25 or 30 responses, I got 10 or 15 affirmatives that you can come watch, with stipulations. Some of them respectfully declined, which I totally understood. The most surprising was Butch. He said, "Absolutely, come on down, spend a couple of days," and I did. He was fantastic.
At what point did you realize teaching was what you wanted to do and you were good at it?
That was in early 2002, soon after I started at Dallas C.C. and worked with some high school players from Highland Park. It was my first exposure coaching youth who were goal-oriented -- they wanted to go to college and potentially play beyond college. As my wife puts it, that's what makes my heart sing. That's when I knew what I wanted to do. I went to Brook Hollow and still had Highland Park players under my guidance, then began to expand. One day I got a call from a guy who said, "Hi, I'm Shawn Spieth." His son, Jordan, was 12 and hadn't had formal instruction outside of some advice from a local pro, and group lessons. We met in July of 2005 and Jordan told me he'd shot 62 in an event. I thought, wow, he's got the skills but the style is interesting. He was one-dimensional, with a mostly right-to-left shot. I took him to the back tees at Brook Hollow.
We played six or seven holes. In conjunction with that I put three balls down around three greens and said, "I'm going to put some pressure on your short game." It's a form of skill-testing. "Par on these holes is two," I said. "If you score 21 or better, that's three over, and I'll buy you a hat."
We get to the final hole and he's four over par on our short-game contest. So he's behind the eight ball -- he's got to hole one and get the other two up and down. I put the first ball in a medium difficult location and he chips the sucker in. Now he's three over. I put the next one in a little more difficult situation because he knows he's got the hat in hand. He chips that one to a foot. I'm under the screws-I need to make it tough. So I give him a flop shot downhill to a green that's running away from him. He holes the sucker again and finishes at two over.
That was the second are-you-kidding-me moment. The first was when I found out he shot 62 as a 12-year-old.
Were you excited to uncover this talent or nervous about whether you were ready to teach such a talent?
That's an insightful question. I was excited and had a little trepidation -- what if I go about changing his style and he doesn't hit it as well? I could destroy this ultra-talent. I went to Jerry Smith, the Brook Hollow head pro and my mentor, and explained the situation. His advice was, "Whatever you do, do it confidently and see it through in such a confident manner that you have no doubt that the athlete and the parent will have no doubt." With a very special player, it's a challenge. I needed the reassurance. After the lesson, I sent his dad an email and said I'd love to help him. I suggested we get together after his summer schedule and sent him some changes we'd go through to turn Jordan into a better ball-striker and a better putter. He was a poor putter back then, quite frankly.
Fast-forward to when Jordan was 16 and playing in the Byron Nelson. Even then he had the skills-the ball control, the putting and short game skills to win a PGA Tour event. The validation of that was how well he played, finishing 16th. He wasn't ready, psychologically or emotionally, to win, but he certainly was of the mindset that he could compete.
How did Jordan improve his putting?
He'd been putting conventional. When he puts his right hand on the club, he wants to get his right arm and right shoulder closer to the ball so he gets his shoulder tilted on a line to the left. Throughout the range of a full swing, given the range of rotation, you can make up for that pretty easily. But within the range of a very short putting stroke without much trunk rotation, you can't. So he'd create this leftward path with the putter and he'd have to open the putter-face to get the ball started on line and it therefore influenced his speed control. I tried to battle with his conventional stroke and adjust his alignment and it wasn't taking. One day he came in and said, "I just switched to cross-handed and I love it." So he made the choice. It got his shoulders and arms in alignment.
The week before every tournament, we work on target training-sets of ten balls, with 9-, 7-, 5-iron, hybrid, driver, or even-numbered clubs. He has to stay on the range until he meets certain standards, like a field-goal kicker having to kick it through the uprights. Jordan would have to hit nine out of ten 9-iron shots within a 30-foot wide area, all solid contact. Prior to his event, then, his mind would gear back into ball-control, shot shape and target, and fade away from technique. Same with the putter; he became a great putter with the style change and then training the skills correctly.
What adjustments did you make as he got older and bigger?
We had to be patient and wait for him to grow into that size. He was 15, he'd just won the U.S. Junior, and we talked about the offseason. I said, "Jordan, here's what I want you to do, but this will be a whole lot easier if in doing this, you're strong enough to support what I'm asking you do to." That winter he got involved in physical training. So the Byron Nelson came around that spring and he'd been working out. He became a big, strong, strapping kid. He put on some pounds and gained some speed. He hit it farther and could control it better.
To many of us Jordan seems like an overnight sensation.
The tree has grown its roots really deep. It started at 12 with me, but I'd trace it all the way back to his parents when he was 3 and got potty trained with plastic golf clubs. He loved to hit whiffle balls with these clubs. He'd say, "I want to play golf." His mom would put them on a shelf or on top of the laundry machine and say, "Jordan, you get your golf clubs when you go potty." That's how he became potty trained. His mom says he'd stay out there until dark hitting those plastic balls around.
His parents let him play other sports. He was interested in being a great pitcher like his dad. At some point, he started to identify more with being a golfer. He didn't consider he played full-time golf until he was nine.
What kind of maintenance does he need?
I'm proud of the fact that he's developed into a very self-sufficient player. A player who has self-awareness -- what's my body feel like, what does the club feel like and what does the contact feel like-can create a change that allows him to play. Sometimes, he'll have his caddie shoot video on the range. Sometimes, he'll email me a video. I went to PGA Championship. He prepared great, took the week before off, but he didn't play well. He missed the cut and said, "I'm going to play Wyndham next week. Can I get some time?" I said, "Sure, but we're not going to the range, we're going to play." I said, "What I saw out there translated to performing on the course." We played 18 on Sunday of the PGA Championship and he shot 64 or 65 at Brook Hollow, had great ball control with only a small alignment tweak. The course is closed Monday, but I have the luxury of taking a few people out there. He shoots 29 on the front. I said, "Jordan, this is affirmation for you that things were in place and you didn't need much more than validation to set your mind free to play golf." And then he went to Wyndham and lost in a playoff to Patrick Reed.
I'll go to four or five PGA Tour events next year, and I see Jordan every week he comes home, but he doesn't require much of an overhaul.