Jordan Spieth’s ascension has always had the air of inevitability. He was dominant in junior golf and during his one collegiate season at Texas, and he arrived on the PGA Tour in 2013 seemingly wholly formed as a player and a person. In less than three seasons as a pro he has checked off all the boxes: win a tournament as a PGA Tour rookie; contend at a major championship and play in the Ryder Cup as a sophomore; win a major (the Masters) and turn into a game-changing superstar at the age of 21.
Spieth has made it look so easy, it's tempting to forget that his career as a professional golfer got off to a rocky start and that it took all of his considerable talent and a little bit of good fortune for him to reach this point. In fact, the rise of Spieth can be traced to four spectacular hole-outs in 2013 that tell you pretty much everything you need to know about his game and his competitiveness. Asked about them recently, Spieth said, "I mean, I think there was some luck involved. And I think that was kind of God's plan for me for those [four shots] to go in."
Cameron McCormick, his lifelong swing coach, has a different read: "The kid has a lot of Hollywood in him." This is worth remembering as Spieth chases the second leg of the Grand Slam at Chambers Bay.
PUERTO RICO, MARCH 2013
One of the few times that Spieth has failed in his golfing life came at the second stage of Q school in November 2012. Playing near his hometown of Dallas, at TPC Craig Ranch, Spieth was admittedly tight, and he struggled with his gilded putter, shooting 71-69-69-71 for 26th place, three strokes off the top 20 finish that would have propelled him to the final stage of qualifying. Spieth had yet to turn pro, and after leading the Longhorns to their first national championship in 40 years, he was compelled to explore his options by recently enacted changes to the Q school format.
A couple of weeks after the second-stage failure Spieth took his fall semester finals and then joined the professional ranks, gambling that he could turn seven sponsors' exemptions—the maximum allowed for a non--PGA Tour member—into $474,295, the amount earned by the 150th player on the 2012 money list. That would give Spieth temporary membership status and allow him to pursue unlimited exemptions, which figured to be plentiful given his glittering amateur career and high-profile cameos at the Byron Nelson Classic. (As a high school junior he contended at the 2010 Nelson before finishing 16th.) "It was a gamble, for sure," says Spieth. "If I didn't play well [in those seven starts], I would have been left with no status on the PGA or Web.com tours, and it would have been a hard road. But I believed in my abilities and was willing to bet on myself."
Spieth made his 2013 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open, missing the cut by two strokes. On the cupcake North course at Torrey Pines, he had three bogeys and could do no better than an even-par 72. His caddie, Michael Greller, had looped for Spieth when he won the second of his two U.S. Junior titles, and he could sense something different about his man. "He wasn't playing with the same freedom," says Greller. "In fairness to Jordan, there was a lot of pressure to make every tournament count."
Two weeks later Spieth played with more conviction at Pebble Beach, finishing 22nd to earn $65,000. He didn't score a sponsor's exemption for the next month's slate of Tour events, so he gamely teed it up at Web.com events in Panama and Colombia, finishing in the top 10 at both. "You could see the confidence was coming back," says Greller.
The third Tour start of Spieth's rookie year came at the Puerto Rico Open. It's a lovely setting, but no player wants to be there, given that it's a consolation prize for the rank-and-file who don't qualify for the concurrent WGC at Doral. Spieth opened 69--66, and for the third round he was paired with brooding Angel Cabrera, a two-time major champion and one of the most intimidating men in golf. "I had heard about Jordan some from my teacher, Charlie Epps, but I usually don't pay much attention to rookies out here," says Cabrera. "I did notice his grip—it wasn't impressive. And his swing wasn't anything special. But he made every putt he looked at."
Spieth needed his short stick that day, as he was fighting his swing in windy conditions. The par-3 11th hole at Trump International was playing 203 yards with a back-left pin on a green that slanted away from the tee. Spieth pulled out a 4-iron and played the kind of shot he had perfected on the sun-baked, windswept courses of his youth: a low, hard draw that landed near the front of the green and began a long journey toward the hole. "Jordan has the imagination and the courage to always play the correct shot," says McCormick. "A lot of players, even those who are successful on Tour, just go with their comfortable ball flight no matter where the pin is. Jordan likes to shape shots that get the ball close to the hole."
Spieth's ball rolled for some 60 feet across the green before doinking the flagstick and disappearing for an ace. It was such a pretty shot even Cabrera gave his playing partner some dap, but Spieth is somewhat dismissive of the outcome, saying, "To make that shot from more than 200 yards with a 4-iron, that's not clutch—if it was I would have a lot more of those. It was just a great moment, and it got me into a better position for what I wanted to do that week. That was my first hole in one in a professional tournament, so that's special, but it was really luck for it to go in the hole."
The ace helped Spieth turn what could have been a 74 into a 67. When he matched the score the next day, he tied for second and banked $308,000. He was on his way.
TAMPA BAY, MARCH 2013
A day later Spieth blew into the Tampa Bay Championship at Innisbrook, and his quest to secure his playing privileges was a story that the golf world was beginning to follow. Before he teed off, it was calculated that a top 13 finish would earn him the sufficient dough. Spieth spent the first 70 holes hovering around that spot on the leader board. Then on the long par-3 17th hole on Sunday, he lost his tee shot just right of the green, into rough so thick you couldn't see the top of his shoes. The pin was cut in the back of the green, a few paces above a deep swale. Spieth flew a flop shot just short of the flag, and the ball curled obligingly into the hole. "He never lets his foot off the gas," says Bryce Molder, Spieth's playing partner that day. "I remember he played pretty well early in the round with some birdies on his first six or seven holes, but then he hit a lull. By 17 he really wasn't playing that well, but somehow he brought it back. That shot shows he has something for the moment."
What if Spieth's chip lands two feet shorter and trickles down the hill and he makes bogey? That two-shot swing drops him, hypothetically, to 17th place, and he's still scrambling for job security. Instead he tied for seventh, collected $148,893 and left knowing he had a guaranteed spot for the rest of 2013.
CONGRESSIONAL, JUNE 2013
Spieth didn’t qualify for the Masters or the Players but otherwise played seven of the next eight tournaments on the schedule, collecting top 10s on A-list courses at Hilton Head and Colonial. "My expectations have changed," Spieth said at Colonial. "Down the stretch I'm not worried about seventh-place finishes, like I was in Tampa. I can be more aggressive, which may have hurt me this week, but that's part of learning how to win."
His next opportunity came a month later at the AT&T National, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Spieth started the final round in eighth place, three shots off the lead. On the par-4 opening hole he drove into a fairway bunker, and from 127 yards he played a gap wedge that landed pin high and spun dead left into the hole. Spieth often couches his heroics as good luck, but this time he concedes, "That was a good shot. It really was a good shot to start the round, when I needed a good start."
Spieth was level par over the next 17 holes on a tough setup and would finish sixth, but he was already cultivating the legend. "He is just a unique and very creative individual," says Brendan Steele, his playing partner that day. "After the hole-out he one-putted the 2nd and chipped in on the 3rd: three holes and one putt. Incredible.
"You can tell he's a special player, and he does special things. Like Tiger or Phil or Rory."
Steele wasn't the only one who took notice; Fred Couples, then the U.S. Presidents Cup captain, later said Spieth's strong finish on a U.S. Open track helped persuade him to use a captain's pick on the teenager. The week at the Presidents Cup would further accelerate his development.
JOHN DEERE, JULY 2013
Two weeks after he displayed the Sunday magic at Congressional, Spieth again found himself in contention, at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. He began the final round six shots off the lead, but starting on number 13 he birdied four of his next five holes to rocket up the leader board at TPC Deere Run. "They get huge crowds at the Deere," says Kevin Sutherland, Spieth's playing partner that day, "and the people fell in love with Jordan. It definitely wasn't a veteran's march to victory—he was playing with a lot of energy and emotion. I think the crowd could see this kid was something special, and you could feel them kind of pushing him along."
Spieth came to the 72nd hole knowing he needed one more birdie, but his approach found the back-right bunker, leaving a downhill shot to a shallow green. Naturally, he holed it. "What a moment," says Sutherland. "As loud as I've ever heard it on a golf course. And talk about youthful energy: Jordan jumped higher than I could ever jump, that's for sure. It was cool to be a part of that."
At the time Spieth called the hole-out "the luckiest shot I've ever hit." He sang a similar tune at this year's Masters, mentioning that he "bladed" the shot. Pressed on this recently, Spieth said, "Yeah, part of that was sarcasm—I didn't blade the shot. I hit a little closer to the ball than I wanted to. It had some spin, but certainly I got lucky. It wasn't hit the way I wanted to hit it, but it wasn't bladed off the ... anyway, yeah, I mean...."
Zach Johnson, the gritty defending champ, needed only a par on the final hole to win that Deere, but he made a sloppy bogey, necessitating a playoff with Spieth and David Hearn, a Canadian who was looking for his first Tour win. Throughout the five holes of sudden death Spieth made a series of nervy par putts, while his more experienced foes ultimately self-destructed, with Hearn missing a five-footer on the fourth extra hole and Johnson dumping a shot in the water on the next. In the end the kid prevailed, as if it were his destiny, becoming the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years. The victory made him a full-fledged Tour member, and thus Spieth was retroactively credited with all the FedEx Cup points he had accrued. (He would wind up seventh at year's end, earning a $700,000 bonus.) The win also punched Spieth's ticket to the British Open, the PGA and the 2014 Masters.
The trajectory of Spieth's career had been forever altered, but he still bristles at being described as clutch. "I told you, I don't believe in that word," he says. "I believe when I'm in a pressure situation, I have memories I can draw on and gain confidence from. I don't believe that is clutch because when you don't do it, I don't believe that is a choke, which is the other side of that word."
Shawn Spieth has spent a lot of time ruminating on his son's uncanny ability to deliver when it matters most. "What I have observed," Shawn says, "is that Jordan embraces the opportunity and he's able to focus to the point where he can get everything out of his abilities. The bigger the crowd, the more the pressure, the more he seems to relax."
That was never more evident than during Spieth's Masters victory, when he ho-hummed his way into the history books. It took many, many little moments for him to arrive at the pinnacle of his sport. Four unlikely shots from his rookie year played a role, earning Spieth a place on Tour and a spot in the 2014 Masters. During that first trip to Augusta he led after seven holes on Sunday and contended until the bitter end, giving him the belief and the know-how to finish the job in wire-to-wire fashion a year later. Does he take the green jacket without the ace in Puerto Rico, or the flop shot at Innisbrook, or the hole-out at Congressional, or the bunker shot at the Deere? Maybe, maybe not. Reflecting on it all, Spieth offers the final word: "I guess everything happens for a reason."