How Jordan Spieth Got To the Top
The last few years of Jordan Spieth’s life have been mind blowing. He’s had a series of adjustments we’d all like to make due to his success on the golf course. He is, after all, in just his fourth season as a professional, and already he's won two major championships, six additional PGA Tour events, Tiger Woods’ event (Hero World Challenge) and the Emirates Australian Open.
But let's be clear. Coming out of college, Jordan Spieth was no Tiger Woods. If you thought you saw his success ahead of time, you are either lying or you are the Long Island Medium. Nobody would have expected it. Nobody. Except maybe Jordan Spieth.
While watching the Masters, a friend of one of the XM Radio hosts on PGA Tour radio asked, how can he be so good when he looks so average? Well, guess what. There’s just nothing average about Spieth, even though he looks like the kid next door.
He got his first taste of professional golf in 2010 when he was 16, when the AT&T Byron Nelson Classic provided him with a special exemption to play in his hometown of Dallas.
People have won as amateurs before and making the cut -- looking back, making the cut would be something special in itself -- but obviously you try and get it going and see where that takes you,” Spieth said before teeing it up as a teenager.
Obviously, he did not lack confidence. In his first start at a professional event, he exceeded everybody's expectations but his own, finishing 16th.
"I definitely loved being able to learn from the guys I was playing with, and just on and off the course, seeing how they were approaching their pre-round routine and stuff, just speaking with a couple of them in the locker room,” Spieth said at the end of the week.
He added that he couldn't wait to be able to try it again, and sure enough, he got the chance.
The next season, 2011, he also played in the AT&T Byron Nelson, making the cut and finishing 36th. He wasn't happy with it because he finished with bogeys on the final three holes.
"I was everywhere on this course,” Spieth said. “I probably played a shot left-handed. I hit probably 30 trees out there, but, you know, it just wasn't there, just wasn't there with the driver,” he explained. “No one really expected me to give it a shot today. I expected myself to win today or at least give it a good chance. I was able to fight back other bogeys and make some other birdies, and I'm happy with the way that happened.”
In the spring of 2012, still an amateur, he played in the Valero Texas Open and finished 41st. He was in his first year of college in Austin at the University of Texas. Once again, he met the media.
“In all these Tour events, not only am I just measuring my own game against them, but I'm trying to learn stuff from them,” he said then. “They're all out here -- PGA Tour members for a reason so -- I'm trying to be where they are.”
That same spring he got into the U.S. Open as an alternate when Brandt Snedeker withdrew. Spieth made the cut and ended the week 21st.
As a collegian, Spieth had a short but excellent career. He was named Big 12 Conference Player of the Year in 2012 when the Texas Longhorns won the NCAA Championship. He was rated the top amateur in the country.
However, he was never the U.S. Amateur champ, and the year Texas won the NCAA, a Belgian, Thomas Pieters from the University of Illinois, won the individual title.
Despite the fact that he did not have the resume of some golfers who have left college early, Spieth made a decision to turn pro in December of 2012, mid-way through his sophomore year.
"I owe everything I've achieved thus far to the support of my family, friends, teammates, and the University of Texas,” he said at the time.
“While I'm proud of what my teammates and I have accomplished,
I couldn't be more excited to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a
professional golfer."-- Jordan Spieth
His decision came well after the PGA Tour Q-School was completed and that meant Spieth entered the
unknown, without a tour where he could play, without a way to set a schedule. He had to hope tournament sponsors would take a chance on him, based on his previous play at PGA Tour events. He needed to get sponsor exemptions.
Some players go through the seven exemption process and are not successful in making it to PGA Tour status. Justin Leonard made it. Tiger Woods made it. But few do. Spieth was taking a chance, believing that he was skilled enough to get the job done.
Between December of 2012 and January of 2013, Spieth was fortunate to sign a sponsorship deal with an up and coming clothing company, Under Armour. Things were looking up, financially at least.
Then re received sponsor exemptions to two Web.com events, one in Panama and one in Columbia, where he finished tied for 7th and 4th, respectively.
However, there were only two ways Spieth could gain status on the PGA Tour. One was to play out the Web.com Tour season and finish top five. The other was to earn enough money with seven PGA Tour sponsor exemptions -- the maximum allowed for non-members – to gain temporary PGA Tour status for the rest of the season. He was trying for door number two.
He was fortunate to get into the 2013 Farmer's Insurance Open, but he missed the cut there. One exemption down, six remaining. It was clear that the PGA Tour was harder than the Web.com Tour.
His next shot was the AT&T Pebble Beach, and he made the cut, finishing 22nd. It was progress.
In February of 2016, he commented on how important that exemption was to him in 2013.
“This was a tournament where I received an exemption four years ago when I didn't have any status anywhere. It was my second professional ( PGA Tour) start. And it's really close to my heart,” he explained prior to the tournament.
After Pebble Beach it was two exemptions down, five to go and Spieth headed to the Puerto Rico event, a tournament played opposite a World Golf Championship.
That's where his first miraculous week happened. He shot four rounds in the 60s, got to 19-under par, and finished second.
“All in all, obviously I'm real excited with how the week ended, and I would have taken second at the beginning of the week if you told me,” he said.
Finishing second was important for another reason. It meant he could enter the next regular PGA Tour event, which was the following week in Tampa, without needing to use up an exemption. Top ten finishes allow non-exempt players to enter the next regular PGA Tour event without needing or using up a sponsor exemption. After Tampa, he would still have four more sponsor exemptions if he needed them.
Tampa proved to be the second big turning point in his young career.
He finished seventh in Tampa at the Valspar, and with the money he earned there, he was able to gain
what is called special temporary status on the PGA Tour. That meant he could request and receive
exemptions for an unlimited number of regular PGA Tour events for the rest of the season.
“I was really happy to finish strong, and I needed that putt on 18 for a Tour card, so it's a good feeling,” he said immediately after finishing. “Now it's a great feeling to know that I'm at least a temporary member of the Tour right now.”
He knew before the tournament began what he needed to do to get the temporary membership.
“I was looking at the boards and grinding it out and so the last three holes on Sunday here were three of the biggest holes I played all last year,” he said later on about Tampa.
His next challenge was to make enough money in the remaining tournaments of 2013 to finish the season in the top 125 on the money list so that he would have a bullet-proof PGA Tour card for the following season. And so, Spieth played like a golfer possessed, skipping only those events he was not qualified to enter like The Masters and The Players. It’s a wonder he didn’t collapse from exhaustion.
He entered the Shell Houston Open and the Valero Texas Open (missed cut) before the Masters , where he was not qualified to play. Then it was the RBC Heritage, Zurich Classic ( missed cut) and Wells Fargo Championship after The Masters.
He was not qualified for The Players week, but he was able to enter the HP Byron Nelson, the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, The Memorial, and the U.S. Open. His best finish of those was 7th at the Crowne Plaza. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Next he entered the AT&T National ( now Quicken Loans) and the Greenbriar Classic.
There was no let up in his schedule. To explain how much he played, the requirement for PGA Tour players is 15 tournaments for the entire year, and Spieth played 16 between late January and the middle of July, plus two Web.com events or 18 in all within six-and-a-half months. He played everything he was allowed to play and everywhere he could get an invitation to play.
Then, after Greenbriar, came the John Deere Classic, where his life changed, dramatically, one more time.
In the final round of the John Deere, Spieth birdied the last three holes to force a playoff with Zach Johnson and David Hearn. The tournament was settled on the fifth playoff hole, where Spieth, age 19 years, 11 months, 18 days, became the second youngest winner of a PGA Tour. (Ralph Guldahl won the 1931 Santa Monica Open at age 19 years, 2 months, 4 days.)
To say he was thrilled is an understatement, but he sounded humble.
“I had a plan. I guess the plan got exceeded.” -- Jordan Spieth
“I wanted to just earn my Tour card for next year (during) this year somehow, " he said. "And now to be able to have it for a couple of years and to be able to have an exemption to Augusta, I mean, all the stuff that comes with it, be able to play in the playoffs. It hasn't hit me yet.”
The victory also qualified him for the British Open, which he had not originally intended to play. He was the last entrant.
“I thought I was going to play two out of the four, and I ended up playing four in a row here,” he said after playing the British Open. “I packed for the Washington, D.C. heat and ended up in Scotland.”
He said his legs were tired right at that moment, and he was a little concerned about only having short sleeve shirts with him for a trip to Scotland.
At the British Open, he finished 44th. No matter what, the rest of the year would be gravy.
Spieth finally took a couple weeks off, but picked up again at the PGA (missed cut) and then played six more in a row. He made the Tour Championship in his first season, and finished second there. He was a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup team.
Jordan Spieth had gone from zero to the Tour Championship to the Presidents Cup in less than a year. He was the new phenom, and that is not an exaggeration.
“The beginning of the year, my goal, yeah, I've said it a million times. It was just to get on Tour next season. It was just to get my 2014 PGA Tour card. I thought that it would come through the Web.com Tour this year and the Web.com Playoffs. And those couple weeks happen at Puerto Rico and Tampa that really changed my golf life,” he admitted at the end of the season. “I just had to readjust goals a couple different times this year and definitely exceeded any expectations I could have imagined starting the year.”
He had started the season with no status and won a tournament half way through it to earn his PGA Tour card for two years.
The next year, 2014, he played 27 events and his best finishes were two seconds, one at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, and one very memorable one at the Masters. He did have the lead at The Players, just as he had at The Masters, and he wasn’t able to capitalize there either. However, he was picked for the Ryder Cup team.
2015 is the year that will forever separate Jordan Spieth from the majority of PGA Tour players.
Spieth said that his charge to an historic season really began at the end of the 2014 season when he played overseas. First it was the HSBC in China and after that, the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan. Then, in Australia, he shot a final round 63 at the Emirates Australian Open to beat Rory McIlroy who was world No.1.
Six months later he would explain the impact of that victory.
“What the Australian Open did is, in a period where I had some struggles towards the top of the leaderboard on Sundays, it was a level of patience and a level of -- it was trial and error for a couple of times – and I had not found the solution,” he began. “We found the solution in Australia against a world-class field including the World No.1 and 2 at the time. Closing out that tournament and seeing what that meant in the history of that tournament and understanding who won there, it meant a lot.”
A couple weeks later, he won the Hero Challenge over an elite field at Tiger Woods’ tournament. He probably wished the heart of the 2015 season started then.
“In general, this was the best that I've ever played,which is what I said in a media center in Sydney last week. I played better this week. This is the best I've played,” he said. “Hopefully, look back and continue to grow off this week.”
However, the 2015 calendar year started unremarkably, compared to the end of 2014. His highest finish the first two months was a tie for 4th at the Northern Trust. Then he headed to the Valspar which is where all the action started.
Once again, Spieth got into a playoff, this time with Patrick Reed and Sean O’Hair, and again, he was the victor. So he had two more years of exemptions on the PGA Tour. But better than that, he was showing good form at a time of year that’s important to golfers. It was just a few weeks to The Masters.
Of course, the rest, you pretty much know.
At The Masters Spieth got to 19-under for a short time, but ended the week at 18-under, tying Tiger Woods’ record in 1997. Spieth made the rounds of the talk shows. Exhausted, he played the RBC Heritage because he had entered it. Then, he missed the cut at The Players.
"I was struggling hitting the ball,” he admitted. “I was looking for something in my alignment, just didn't quite trust it today until I was already too far behind the 8-ball. So, yeah, just a really, really poor day.”
He said sometimes you get a day of bad breaks, but that wasn’t the reason for his score. If his putting had been poor, he added, his score would have been much worse.
At the U.S. Open, because he was the Masters champ, there was a lot of attention on him, at the start of the week, but it was nothing compared to the amount of attention he received by the end of the week. However, it did look like he was pretty much trying to give it away at the 17th hole.
“I didn't think I had lost it after 17, but I thought I needed to play 18 well just to play tomorrow (in a playoff),” he said. “It's incredible to win a major championship. You only get a few moments in your life like this, and I recognize that. And to have two in one year and to still be early in the year, that's hard to wrap my head around.”
To keep his Masters and U.S. Open victories in historic perspective, only five other players have won those events in the same season: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Craig Wood and Ben Hogan. Wood and Hogan did it before there was such a thing as the modern day Grand Slam because Arnold Palmer invented the modern Grand Slam in 1960 when he won those two events and headed to the British Open.
The modern day Grand Slam is winning The Masters, the U .S. Open, the British Open and the PGA in the same year. No one has ever done it. Palmer was the first modern era golfer to try it. Nicklaus was the second. Woods, the third. Then Spieth.
He had a chance to match a feat that only Ben Hogan has accomplished: winning the first three majors of the season, which Hogan did in 1953.
He knew it. The media knew it. All the other players knew it. Eventually the fans knew it. And yet, Spieth actually talked about it at the 2016 Masters.
“I see it as something that's only been done once before, and it was a long time ago. I think that to be in that category of having done something that you love to do and that you're doing for your life, only one person has ever done it before, that opportunity very rarely comes around, and I'd like to have a chance to do something nobody has ever done,” he said. “I think that the Grand Slam is something that I never could really fathom somebody doing, considering I watched Tiger win when he was winning whatever percentage of the majors he played in and he won the Tiger Slam, but he never won the four in one year. And I figured if anybody was going to do it, it would be him, which he still can.”
Spieth went to St. Andrews with a chance to tie Hogan and a chance at more golf history. He had a shot through the 16th hole in the final round, but poor shots on the last two holes meant Zach Johnson would win. Then Jason Day came to the forefront at the PGA and won that.
But Spieth was not done with 2015. At the Tour Championship, his game was not on. He had to struggle for the victory. But he won it, and also the FedEx Cup.
“It was amazing that we competed with the way I felt over the ball,” he said after his victory there. “But my short game was phenomenal this week.”
Spieth revealed one secret from that week, and it was just to think about the week, not the implications of victory or of the season as a whole.
When it came to the season as a whole, he definitely knew what was the most significant moment.
“What am I most proud of this year? The Green Jacket. That was, as far as on-course performance, what am I most proud of, was the Masters win,” he said. “That was one that you grow up every single day going out to your practice green with your buddies saying, you have the last putt in the putting contest, it's all tied up, this is to win the Masters.”
He exceeded his own expectations, but not his dreams.
“It's the greatest season I've ever had, obviously. But it's one where I believe I -- we took our game on course and off course to a level that I didn't think would be possible at different times in my life,” he explained. “I believed that we could get to this position where we're at right now."
"There's plenty of times where you feel so poorly with the putter or you're not hitting any fairways with the driver, or you sit back and think how in the world does somebody do this?” --Jordan Spieth
When Spieth is winning, the amazing thing is he doesn’t look like he’s dominating a course or a tournament when he’s leading. He doesn’t hit drives as far as Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. But when his iron game is on and he finds a fairway, he can putt and chip like a demon.
Still Spieth looks and acts like a normal person, not like someone so on fire that he has flames come out of his ears. He looks so normal it’s easy to think, hey that could be me. But of course, we are only dreaming.
In 2015, Spieth achieved so much that, even for the very miraculous Jordan Spieth, it will be very hard to top.
As Adam Scott said, “I can only praise Jordan for everything he's done, the way he's handled himself and the way he's played after winning the Masters. To win the U.S. Open, it's stuff -- it's like fairy tale stuff.”
After 2015, Spieth was uniquely qualified to answer the question, is it possible for anyone to win the Grand Slam – the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA – in the same season. He answered it at the Masters,hoping it wouldn’t come back to haunt him.
“I would have said prior to last year, no. And it's very, almost conceited for me to say because of last year, maybe,” he began. “But we were so close and it was one break here or there. Now we got the breaks this week( 2015 Masters), and we certainly got the breaks at the U.S. Open.”
He added Chambers Bay was a golf course where you needed the breaks.
“I had control of my own destiny at The Open Championship. And then the PGA, I'll use an excuse right now and say, there was a three‑stroke difference in the draw,” he added referring to the first two days where half the field is in the morning on day one and in the afternoon on day two and the other half of the field is vice versa. He credited being on the wrong end of the draw there with three strokes.
“I started I think three shots behind, two to four shots the last day and I think I lost by three,” he explained. “It seems silly, right. It seems like you can overcome that in a major, but it makes a difference. You have to have everything go your way to win a golf tournament, let alone to win a major, to have that happen the four times in a year in those four weeks.”
In other words, a player has to be on his game, and he has to get more than the average number of breaks in a four day period when the tournaments are being contested.
“I think it can happen, but especially with the way things have changed in media and just the lack of ability to stay private, if someone wins the first three majors, it's going to be very difficult to shut out the noise by the fourth and to still play your own game,” he concluded.
All we know for sure is the Grand Slam is not going to happen in 2016. There’s always next year.
This article first appeared in the Ponte Vedra Recorder.