The first thing you notice about the 2017 Open champion is that not much is really noticeable. Jordan Spieth is tall, but not too tall. And he’s a fresh-faced, good-looking lad. But Hollywood probably wouldn’t give him a second glance.
In his early twenties, the champion golfer of the year’s hairline is already receding, a fact he is clearly aware of. When he takes off his cap to shake hands at the end of every competitive round, the first thing he does is pat down the hair he has left.
The best thing about Spieth, however, is his unfailing politeness and humility, without ever appearing either false or gushy. The presence of his younger sister, Ellie, in his life surely has much to do with that admirable quality. The teenager has special needs in life – she was born with a neurological disorder - and has given her brother a perspective unfamiliar to many of the PGA Tour’s spoiled and pampered elite.
“It’s definitely humbling to see how Ellie is and how she lives her life,” he says. “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 everyday struggles. She can’t hang with her friends in the way my brother (Steven) and I do, for example. When I think of that, I know how tough she has it. But she is happy. She smiles every day and does what she wants to do.”
At the age of 23 - he turns 24 on Thursday - Spieth has already seen both the bright and the dark sides of life. Which is why he is already a fine spokesman for his sport. Mature beyond his tender years, the Texan talks a good game as well as playing one.
And in doing so, he sets a great example for those of his peers tempted to follow the morose and secretive lead of Tiger Woods when dealing with fans and media.
“If all you ever did was win your whole life, you’d be a difficult person to talk to,” he says with a smile. Indeed, while his date of birth - July 27, 1993 – confirms the age belied by that already receding hairline, in so many other ways Spieth is distinct from his direct contemporaries. Speaking for the majority, former U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Paul Azinger calls his compatriot “a grown man.”
Spieth did grow up quickly. By the age of 16 he was good enough to make the halfway cut in a PGA Tour event. He is also the only under-18 – other than Woods – to record multiple victories in the U.S Junior Championship.
In his first Masters, Spieth finished T-2; in his Players Championship debut he was T-4. As he displayed oh-so clearly over a pulsating closing 18-holes at Birkdale, he is unafraid of the big occasion, the big shot.
“Jordan finds a way to make the ten-foot putts for pars that really count,” says former European Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley. “The ones that keep a score going when you are struggling a little bit. There is no finer putter in the game today.”
True. But expanding on that assessment, Spieth reveals the one relatively weak area of his formidable game.
“My best weeks tend to coincide with the times when I drive the ball well,” he claims. “Some guys can do really well without driving that well, but I’m not one of those. Driving is a big part of my formula for success.
“Put me in the fairway and my strengths come into play. My course management is nearly always good. 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 always aim to have a maximum of one or two over-par holes per day. If I do that, my putting and my birdies – one of my better statistics – will take care of the rest.”
Spieth’s game doesn’t have the same “smash it” quality routinely displayed by the likes of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.
But there is an intelligence to his play that sets him apart more than a 350-yard drive.
“You can learn a lot from the way Jordan gets around a course,” agrees former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “More than anyone, he seems to sign for one or two (shots) less than you think he maybe should have. Every day. Tiger was like that; he always seemed to sign for five less than he should have. Jordan’s one of those guys who gets the best out of his round almost every time he plays. That’s something we can all observe and get something out of.”
Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Spieth and 14-time major champion Woods. The pair share some history. Both played for the United States in the Walker Cup matches. Both were rated the number-one amateur on the planet before turning professional. And both spent only one year in college – Woods at Stanford, Spieth at Texas – before quickly making their marks in the paid ranks.
There are differences too. When Woods claimed the first of his Grand Slam titles at Augusta National in 1997, there was no McIlroy on the horizon, a man of roughly similar age who had already won four of golf’s most important events.
There was competition aplenty to come from Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, but domination on the scale achieved by Woods is more difficult for Spieth with McIlroy around.
Then again, based on what the world witnessed at Birkdale, domination might be even more unlikely for Rory. And anyone else. The message going forward is simple: anyone wanting to win majors will have to go through Jordan Spieth. Good luck with that.
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