Jordan Spieth Adds Exclamation Points to a Remarkable Season

September 29, 2015

If you don’t like this Jordan Spieth, there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t like Michael Greller, Spieth’s caddie, go see Dr. Phil, go see Dr. Bob (Rotella), go see somebody. As for the Ellies — Spieth’s kid sister, Greller’s wife — they’ve improved the PGA Tour without hitting a shot. If you’re not digging “Gramps” — Bob Julius, Jordan’s maternal grandfather — you obviously haven’t met the man. He spent his working life at Bethlehem Steel, which for years had three 18-hole courses for employees, but he never played any of them. “I never got that high in the company,” he’ll tell you. Well, the oldest of Gramps’ 11 grandchildren made $22 million over the past year playing professional golf, $10 million of it a bonus for winning the FedEx Cup nonplayoffs, which concluded last week at timeless East Lake in Atlanta. If you were happy for Jordan Spieth — who wasn’t? — it’s because you like the guy.

They say everybody loves a winner, but that’s not true. Not everybody loves Bubba Watson or the New York Yankees or Donald Trump. But Jordan Spieth, who just completed one of the 10 best seasons in the (roughly) 85-year history of U.S. professional tournament golf, is a joy to root for. For one thing, there’s the way he talks. He brings us in. He’s happy to tell us how he actually feels, whether he’s standing over a divot hole after a wayward shot or seated in front of a logoed microphone. At East Lake, talking about the game’s top players — Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, himself, various others — Spieth said, “We all want to beat the crud out of each other. We want to beat each other down. [But] we respect each other.” It was as if Spieth were reclaiming Hogan’s tour and Arnie’s tour, before the vagabond circuit became a registered trademark. Spieth was describing the PGA Tour that would be recognized by Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, by Johnny Miller and Tom Watson, by Curtis Strange and Greg Norman, by Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Tiger was a one-off, the greatest of all time, an awesome spectacle. He transcended the PGA Tour and its time line. Everything about him — his accomplishments, his attitude, his manner, his scandal — was outsized. He was bigger than the Tour, and he knew it. Spieth is doing remarkable things, but his young career is falling on a continuum we know.

As for his 2014-15 campaign (ugh, what a phrase), it’s already in the pantheon. Spieth won five times, including two majors (the Masters and the U.S. Open) and the Tour Championship, where he beat (count ’em!) 27 other golfers. Tiger is the only other player to win a major and at East Lake in the same season.

Unlike Woods, you will never hear Spieth speak of his desire to win more majors than Nicklaus. You will never hear him say he wants to become golf’s first billionaire. If he thinks such things, and it seems highly unlikely, he keeps them to himself. As he posed for pictures on the home green on a dank Sunday night, Grandpa Julius was on the scene, in his groovy white plaid shorts and white British racing cap, saying that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan give away millions to various charities before the year is out. “Things just aren’t that important to him,” Gramps said. (Jordan Spieth, meet Pope Francis!) Ellie Greller, like her husband, was a teacher before she joined the circus. Ellie Spieth is a special-needs kid. The Jordan Spieth Family Foundation — run by Chris Spieth, mother of Jordan, Ellie and Steven, a basketball player at Brown — is devoted to finding educational opportunities for kids like Ellie. Every world-class athlete is motivated by something we don’t readily see. If Jordan Spieth were a pol (he’s anything but), he’d be running on an education platform.

As for his golf, it is deeply brainy. It’s not just his 20/10 eyesight as a greens reader. (He examines putting surfaces like an art student looking at Old Master canvases.) It’s his whole approach to the game, and to the endless PGA Tour season. He’s applying serious gray matter to his sport’s various challenges, greens-reading and pacing among them. Consider his calculated, actionable decision to anoint the Tour Championship not as a week to grab some free money but as a major of sorts.

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No, the Tour Championship is not a major. Not even close. The majors have grandeur. The PGA Tour does a lot of things well, but grandeur is not one of them. The idea of the Tour Championship as a major will live and die in one paragraph in this report. What Spieth said last week is that he was treating the Tour Championship like a major. Spieth, in the manner of Woods and Nicklaus and Hogan before him, seeks to peak for majors. The FedEx series is four events in five weeks, known to the caddies as New York, Boston, Chicago and Atlanta. But for Spieth, and a very few others, the only tournament that really mattered was Atlanta. Win there — beat those 27 other players — and the whole shebang would be his. Spieth missed the cut in the first two FedEx events, the first time in his career he ever missed consecutive cuts. Did he panic? No. Why? Because he knew, just as Day and Fowler and few others knew, that if he came to East Lake with fresh legs and a fresh head, he’d have a very good chance of winning the Tour Championship (which came with a $1.5 million first-place prize) and the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus. The big difference between his play in 2014 and ’15, Spieth said last week, was that he learned how to use his days off. After finishing 13th at the BMW, he showed up tanned, rested and ready. He was at East Lake on Monday morning, reacquainting himself with Bermuda greens like the ones he had grown up on in Dallas. He pretty much had the course to himself.

Six days later the place was humming. East Lake drew nice crowds last week, particularly given how lousy the weather was and that football season, college and pro, was in full swing. Spieth began his 2015 major campaign by playing the Thursday and Friday rounds of the Masters with Henrik Stenson, and he concluded his season by playing the Saturday and Sunday rounds at East Lake with the same droll Swede. They were followed by a large contingent of Southern fraternity boys discussing SEC football, young women in below-the-knee rubber boots sloshing delicately through the mud and a good number of African-American golf fans, more than you see at any other Tour event. “Jordan’s my guy,” a scratch golfer among them named Willie Smith said on Sunday. Spieth and Stenson were on the front nine, and Spieth was clinging to a one-shot lead. “He’ll make eye contact with you,” Smith added. “I want to see what he does playing for $10 million. I’ll tell you one thing: He won’t back down.”

Stenson, the 2013 FedEx champ, was in the same spot as Spieth: win the Tour Championship, and collect the $10 million bonus. They’re friends, and they are often in neighboring lockers, by dint of alphabetical seating. But on Sunday there wasn’t a lot of chitchat between the two. Actually, there wasn’t any. You could make the case that Stenson played better. Except on the greens. When Tiger was Tiger, he made everything too. Willie Smith had it right: Spieth did not back down.

In victory, Spieth thanked his putter, hugged Gramps and remembered Bobby Jones, patron saint of East Lake and Augusta National, a couple of hours down the road on I-20. The kid — all of 22 — made $13 million in Georgia alone in 2015.

For the poker players, the best ones, time slows when the pot gets big, and they become only more observant, their thinking becomes only more orderly. Why has this guy stopped blinking? There was one moment of serious irritation for Spieth on Sunday, when he hit driver left into the thick, wet rough on the downhill par-4 14th. As Stenson stood over his tee shot, 3-wood in hand, Spieth was having an urgent conference with Greller. Things went too fast there; we should have talked about 3-wood! We know Spieth’s ultimate mantra: Learn, learn, learn.

He won by four, with rounds of 68, 66, 68 and 69. Johnny Miller sort of interviewed Spieth when it was over, thanked him for the plain-language analysis he offers with his ball in the air. “I’m glad I could offer some commentary for you, Johnny,” Spieth replied.

Johnny Miller was once Jordan Spieth. Not at the bank, but in other ways. Miller, for a while, holed everything too. Spieth seems to know: Miller helped make the Tour that the man-child so enjoys today. Johnny did his part, just as Billy Casper did before him and Nick Price did after him. Spieth’s gratitude, it’s so … obvious. Of course you’re rooting for the guy.