Nothing satisfies Jordan Spieth more than playing for country or school or family
Get used to having this Jordan Spieth, steely-eyed 20-year-old son of Texas, on your roster. On Sunday afternoon at Muirfield Village, red-assed over his loss in singles but happy to be on a winning Presidents Cup team, he said, "I'd rather play team golf than anything else."
His mother played college basketball. His father played college baseball. His kid brother, Steven, is a freshman on the Brown University basketball team. Put his 12-year-old sister, Ellie, on a soccer pitch or a basketball court, and she can hardly contain herself. The whole team thing is in his blood. "Being on a team," Spieth says, "being with teammates, that's as much fun as you can have."
This, from a kid who started the PGA Tour season without status, secured his card, became the youngest winner on Tour since 1931, won $3.8 million and is now 20th in the World Ranking.
In May 2011, Spieth was still playing high school golf at Jesuit Prep in Dallas, rooting for teammates who could barely break 80. Four months later he was representing the United States in the Walker Cup, a road loss in Scotland that stings him still. His Longhorns won a national title in '12, their first in 40 years, and every time he speaks to his college coach, John Fields, Spieth asks, "How does it feel to be a national champion?"
Then came last week, playing for country, except now his teammates were Tiger, Phil & Co. Spieth was on a stacked team that threw darts for four straight (and long) days. Your scoreboard totals -- Americans 18½, Internationals 15½ -- made the umbrellathon sound closer than it actually was.
Spieth's goal for next year is to play on Tom Watson's Ryder Cup squad. In 2016 he hopes to represent the United States at the Olympics. If you catch him at his neighborhood 7-Eleven and ask him to play on your after-work men's league team, you'll most likely get a yes.
Over the past 19 years Phil Mickelson has played on every Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup team. It's a staggering achievement, and Spieth, schooled in the work of his elders, knows all about it. Spieth, about as pampered as a Route 83 truck driver, sat next to Mickelson at the closing ceremony, last-call press conference. He stared straight ahead as Mickelson summarized what the 19 teams meant to him. "What I have found over my career is that these weeks have become some of the most special weeks of my career," Mickelson said. "They're where friendships are formed that last a lifetime." In 2032, Spieth might say about the same thing.
Last week Couples and his wise men, Jay Haas and Davis Love III, had the inspired idea to give Spieth a playing partner old enough to be his father. Spieth's father, Shawn, a former Lehigh pitcher, is 50. (His mother, Chris, also 50, played at nearby Moravian College.) Spieth's Presidents Cup playing partner was Steve Stricker, who is 46. In the first three sessions they won, won again and lost, at which point Couples sat Spieth for the fourth session, the last one before the Sunday singles.
The Stricker-Spieth team looked like a meeting of wily veterans. Spieth walks with a kind of jock shuffle that brings to mind a football lifer in late career, George Blanda maybe, getting on one more team bus. All he's doing, really, is conserving energy. Pro move.
Last week, and all year long, everywhere you went in golf, you kept hearing people say that Jordan's so mature, so grown up, so wise beyond his years. And he is, to a point. But, you know, he's just a couple of months removed from celebrating his 20th birthday. His signature team-room move last week was to throw Ping-Pong balls at his teammates. His girlfriend, Annie Verret, a sophomore at Texas Tech, missed the opening ceremony because of her test schedule. The man on his bag, Michael Greller, is not a grizzled Tour caddie but a former sixth-grade math and science teacher who carries the bag like a club caddie (parallel to his side, not across his back).
And his swing! Spieth hits his irons with such oomph, and on such a descending blow, his soggy footlong divots last week were flying 25 yards or more. You know where you see a lot of that action? In college golf. Spieth looks like a really good, athletic college golfer, except for his all-world short game, his outsized drive and his inner confidence.
"I remember his first match, fall of his freshman year, 12th hole, Dye course at Stonebridge Ranch Country Club, par-3, about 190 yards, four-iron shot for him then, and I say, 'You might want to think about middle of the green here,' " his high school coach, Cathy Marino, a former LPGA player, was saying last week. "And he just gives me a look and rips one right at the pin. And I'm thinking, Oh-kaaay." It was the start of a beautiful friendship. In May, Spieth popped into Marino's team dinner, unannounced.
Jim Holtgrieve, his Walker Cup captain, still regrets that he sat Spieth for the Saturday-morning session in Aberdeen two years ago. (Spieth won two matches and halved a third in a 14-12 U.S. loss to Great Britian and Ireland.) Holtgrieve, the winning Walker Cup captain this year at the National Golf Links, knows one of the reasons Spieth is so intense about playing for his country. "Growing up in Dallas, he's been around President Bush," Holtgrieve said last week, referring to 43, the patron saint of various U.S. golf teams, most notably Ben Crenshaw's 1999 Ryder Cup team. Bush was there last week too, firing up the team.
Fields was watching Spieth on TV last week and remembering what the kid was like in the various locker rooms the Longhorns visited. "His nickname was Weatherman," Fields said. "He always knew if a front was moving in, which way the wind was going to blow. The other guys would ask him about the weather, and he had the answers right there on his phone. He'd be prepared for all that rain they were having at Muirfield Village. I've never seen a more prepared player."
After going 2-1 with Stricker on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Spieth lost to Graham DeLaet 1 up on Sunday in a well-played match. Love, Verret, Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan and various others all tried to console him, without much success. For several long minutes he basically did nothing but squat like a catcher and stare down the 18th fairway. And then he rejoined the team.
"The best thing you can do to be a good team golfer is to hit it solid -- and putt," Couples said on Sunday night, "because you're going to get nervous playing for your country. But if you hit it on the face, you're going to have more of a chance. And if you make putts, then you're going to have even more of a chance. This guy hits it solid and makes putts."
Really, that's the core of Jordan Spieth, golfer. But to find the core of him as a teammate, you have to look elsewhere. His sister, Ellie, has a significant delay in her mental development, and she attends a school, Vanguard Prep, designed to help kids with special needs. Spieth has volunteered at Vanguard. He knows that the pressures, financial and emotional, in homes with special-needs children can cause families to fall apart. In the case of his family those needs brought them closer together. Team Spieth.
"Being Ellie's brother humbles me every day of my life," Spieth said on Sunday, standing on the side of the 18th fairway as his team was putting the final touches on an impressive win. In a manner of speaking, his golf is for her. "My brother and I were important, but Ellie was more important. She came first."
Here he is, this Jordan Spieth, PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, the golf world at his feet. But he knows, at age 20, something you might not expect him to know. That is the satisfaction that comes from playing for something larger and more important than yourself. Makes you want him on your team, doesn't it?