The majority of 2014 will inevitably be remembered for the performances of Rory McIlroy. But the last month-and-a-bit of the year belonged to an even younger man, 21-year-old American Jordan Spieth.
After emerging from the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles as one of the few Americans with a winning record, the two-time US Junior Champion and former World No.1 amateur lifted the Australian Open title with a closing round of 63, then just a week later in Florida he claimed the Hero World Challenge over a world-class field by an incredible 10 shots.
But there is more to Spieth than golf. The older brother of a sister, Ellie, who has special challenges in life, he owns a perspective broader than many men twice his age. Golf World sat down with Jordan to chat about the game that has made him rich and famous and the family that keeps him humble.
GW: Here you are, one of the best players in the world, yet your statistics would suggest there isn’t a part of your game that stands out from your competition – care to explain?
JS: I know it looks that way. But I feel like my game has improved in every aspect each year I’ve been on Tour. Plus, as we all know, golf is all about getting the ball in the hole. I do that pretty well. Take this year. My putting’s improved a lot, so I’ve been a lot more consistent with my scoring. I take that sort of question as a compliment though. People always ask me what part of my game stands out and I can never give them a definitive answer. I go through months where certain parts of my game are right on. And I peak for certain rounds and certain tournaments. Plus, I can hold the bad rounds together because nothing gets too far off.
So where is your game right now, versus guys like Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, those you are going to have to beat if you are to fulfil your potential?
I need to drive the ball better to reach the next level. My ball-striking, short game and course management has all improved. But my driving is not quite on that level, not consistently. So my best weeks tend to coincide with when I drive well. Some guys can do well without driving great, but right now I’m not one of those. Put me in the fairway and my strengths come into play. My course management is nearly always good, so I know when to take on certain hole locations and when not to. At tour level you have to think your way through courses. I aim for a maximum of one or two over-par holes per day. If I do that, my birdies – one of my better stats – will take care of the rest. I know most people tend to break down rounds in terms of shots or holes, but that isn’t how I think of it. I’ll do whatever it takes to limit myself to one or two bogeys. Then my four or five or six birdies will mean I shoot a low score. And if I do that, everything else takes care of itself.
A lot of people have certainly commented on how smart your play is, especially for one as young as you still are. Your progress has certainly been pretty rapid. Is that something you think of much?
Not much. But when I do, I think of how I compare with the true greats when they were the age I am now. Look at Tiger. He set the bar for all of us. And Rory is starting to do something similar. He is only four years older than me and already he has four major victories. He’s a guy that I can look at. I’m pleased with how far I’ve come in the last two years though. But I still feel like I’m progressing on an average course compared with where Rory has been and where he is now. But I have four years to catch up, if that makes sense. That’s the way I look at it; I have to keep improving if I want to get to the level I want to reach. But I’m not there yet. Not even close. I’m working really hard on my putting. No one has ever done that perfectly. But what I do know is how you putt on every hole determines how happy or unhappy you are walking to the next tee, so it’s worth working on. My wedge play, which is the third important component in scoring well, feels good right now.
I have to ask you about the Ryder Cup. What sort of experience was that?
Amazing. It really was amazing. Incredible. A lot of stuff has come out since the matches, stuff that may make people think we didn’t have such a great time, but it was just out of this world. Over the last three years I’ve played in the Walker Cup and the Presidents Cup and in the last group on the final day at Augusta. But nothing compares with the Ryder Cup. Nothing. The pressure on the first tee is amazing.
Why is that? Why is it that world class players can so often be reduced to jibbering wrecks when there is no money involved?
It just shows you that none of us really think about money. None of us really care about that at this point. The Ryder Cup is all about whom you are representing and whom you are playing for. It’s about what it means to those around you. And nothing means more to individuals than playing for their country, their people and their families. The Ryder Cup does that more than any other event.
Do you have a view on why Europe has been winning so consistently, especially when America has been doing so well in the Presidents Cup?
If you go down the team lists in both events, I think you’ll find that the European team just tends to stack up better than the International side.
So is the International side a bit like the European teams of, say, 20 years ago, where they tended to drop off a little after maybe eight players?
Maybe. But those guys are still capable of beating anyone on their day. But even if you are right, I can only talk of the most recent Ryder and Presidents Cups. The Presidents Cup was so much more relaxed. It was more fun. It was more about the experience off the course and ‘hey, we’re going to go out and win this thing but let’s take a moment to celebrate what have been great years for all of us’. The Ryder Cup wasn’t like that at all. It was, ‘this is everything’. And that was the message we got in the team room. It was, ‘this is what it all comes down to’. Instead of just saying, ‘hey, we’re going to beat those guys’.
Did that create a negative mind-set?
I don’t know if it is negative, but it’s just not as relaxed and positive. It wasn’t negative. But it was the wrong way to go about being positive. We all had an amazing time and we were all pretty relaxed one-on-one with each other. But as a team, all we talked about were the matches. That’s when it got different from the Presidents Cup. It wasn’t any different when we were playing ping pong or hanging with our wives and girlfriends or eating. But when it came to why we were there it was just talked about in a different way. There was too much emphasis and not enough relaxation and fun. We should have been celebrating our great years and enjoying the experience. But we never did that. Instead, it was about getting revenge for what happened at Medinah in 2012. But here’s the deal, half of our team wasn’t at Medinah. I was in college and watched it from the team’s golf club. I was actually hitting balls as I watched.
One weird aspect of all that is the Americans could have won at Medinah and at Celtic Manor two years before. They weren’t playing that badly.
Sure. It’s the same way in any golf tournament – the bounces either go your way or they don’t. It just happens. One thing I will say about the difference between the two cups is that in the Presidents Cup we played matches in pairs we basically picked ourselves three or four weeks in advance. I played with Steve Stricker against Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley at prior events. We had matches to see what worked and what did not. Then we text Fred Couples to tell him what worked and what didn’t.
That was what Paul McGinley did. Graeme McDowell played with Victor Dubuisson numerous times before Gleneagles because Paul saw them as a potential partnership.
Really? I like that. So the European tour paired them in the first couple of rounds?
Yes, and clearly it worked well.
That’s worth looking at. We get paired with our guys afterwards just because we were together at Gleneagles. But it should be before.
What have you made of the aftermath of the matches?
I was very happy to take off five weeks right after. Guys who played the week after were getting drilled with questions on what happened at the press conference. I was so far away from it, but I read what guys were saying.
Has it all been portrayed correctly?
For the most part. The guys who wanted to say something really bit their tongues, other than Phil of course. The others waited until things had settled down and they’d composed themselves enough to say what they wanted to say in the right terms. Tom Watson was a really good Ryder Cup captain but we just didn’t get to know each other well enough. He played a pretty full schedule of his own. And he played some PGA Tour events. But you know him, he took each of those events seriously as if he were trying to win another British Open. That’s the mark of a great champion, but it’s not necessarily the best thing for a Ryder Cup captain to be doing.
I wanted to ask you about your sister, who has special needs…
Of course. I talked to her just this morning. My family lives in St Louis but they’re about to go to Las Vegas to watch my brother in a basketball tournament. It’s definitely humbling to see how she is and how she lives her life. At this point, she is very much improving and holding conversations. She has her own personality and is not so reliant on other people. But she still has every day struggles. She can’t hang out with her friends in the way my brother and I do, for example. When I think of that, I know how tough she has it. But she is happy. She smiles so much and does what she wants to do.
Has it helped you to be around her?
Sure. It’s helped me enormously as an individual. Just having her as part of my life since I was seven has been wonderful. I’ve learned so much from her. She doesn’t worry about what others think, she expresses herself with no hesitation and she gives us so much love. She has no insecurities. I think that’s awesome.
Is she aware of what you do and what you have achieved?
Not really. She knows I’m a golfer, and she knows I’m on television. But she doesn’t know that is a good thing. She gets excited when I am on, but she still flips back and forth between the golf and the movie – which is a good thing. She doesn’t know the extent of anything, but she knows I play golf and that my brother plays basketball. She was upset when I left school. She loved to visit me in Austin. She likes to travel. And I love when she comes out to watch me play. It doesn’t happen often though. Maybe three or four times a year.
What have you made of the Open so far?
I love it. I thought Muirfield was one of the greatest courses I’ve ever played. The weather was perfect and they were able to do whatever they wanted with the course. It was such a cool tournament. And Hoylake was awesome too. I can’t wait for next year though. When I was over for the Walker Cup we played Kingsbarns and the Old Course. We went to the pubs and ate there. And I tried some Tennent’s ale.
No, no, no. Belhaven is the stuff you should try.
Oh yeah? I’ll look out for that next year. I thought the Old Course was amazing. I played with Patrick Cantlay. We played the front nine in no wind. He shot 31 and I shot 30. It was easy with no wind and the pins not tucked away. But on the back nine the wind came up and we both shot 39 on the way in. It was a tale of two nines. I parred the Road Hole, chipping over the bunker. I absolutely loved that.
The pin positions are everything, aren’t they?
Yes. But the most amazing thing about that place is that you walk into the R&A clubhouse and see paintings circa 1700. Then you realise that our country wasn’t founded until 1776, 75 years after those guys were out on the links. That blew my mind, as did the fact that the university there is over 600 years old. It’s a joke.
Looking forward, you’re inevitably going to be asked more and more about winning majors. How do you feel about that?
Before I win a major I’m going to have to win a few more events. I need to learn how to win and how to close out. I need to keep putting myself in position. But the only way to win a major is to have everything peak in one of those four weeks.
How much of your schedule will now focus on the majors?
That was the focus this year and that’ll be the focus next year. I don’t think my schedule will change a whole lot. I may play a couple less events to be fully 100 per cent at the end of the play-offs, which I felt like this year was a tough schedule and I wasn’t quite there. There was a lot of playing and not enough taking a breather on Mondays and Tuesdays. I was grinding too much to be ready on Friday, Saturday, Sunday of East Lake. So my schedule still focuses on the majors and the World Golf Championships, and that hasn’t changed based on the wins.
It’s been an incredible end to 2014 and your back-to-back wins at the Australian Open and Hero World Challenge have taken you back into the top 10 in the world. How important is that?
Yeah, it’s really cool to work my way into the top 10. I think after Augusta I was at seven and I kind of maintained around, I think, 7 to 10 or 11 for a while, and then fell down to 14 before last week. I don’t really focus on that. That’s just what I’ve been told. I just remember hearing that after Augusta, and I remember hearing last week I moved from 14 to 11. To crack the top 10 is a tremendous honour. Winning two tournaments and moving up five spots shows me exactly what it’ll take to try and get up to that number one spot.
What kind of pride do you take out of finishing one shot out of a play-off in Japan and then winning your next two events by a combined 16 shots on three continents?
I take a lot of pride in that. I mean, what a journey. It’s cool that our game can travel. That’s the goal in the future; I want to play all over the world and experience different places on and off the course. I want to see how golf has made its way in places it’s growing and see how prominent it is in places it’s been for a while. I hope to continue to do that in the fall and winter.