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Jordan Spieth’s ‘most embarrassing’ incident reveals something positive about him

Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Mid-afternoon viewers of Thursday’s AT&T Byron Nelson witnessed a familiar sight.

There was Jordan Spieth on the par-5 12th, dissecting his lie in the rough, pointing at a tuft of grass. His movement was frenetic. His chatter, too. His caddie Michael Greller stood stoic, silent, hands on hips.

After a lengthy sales pitch, Spieth talked himself into the shot. He had 246 yards to the hole. A creek guarded the fairway short of the green. Greller might have been skeptical — there was no way to tell.

“It’s on me,” Spieth said of the decision. “It’s on me.”

Then Spieth did exactly what you’d expect: He hit a high cut hybrid, just like he said he would. He made clean contact, skirting the tuft in front of his ball, and his Titleist landed by the hole, caught the backstop at the rear of the green and settled just nine feet away, leaving a short putt for eagle.

The exchange and the shot were revealing in several ways. First, it was a reminder of Spieth’s process: He likes to verbalize things, think through the options and ultimately commit to the shot, however frantic he might seem or difficult its execution it might be. Second, it was a reminder that Spieth is feeling himself. That wizardry and the resulting two-putt birdie got him to six under par for the round through just 12 holes. He’d finish with another heroic shot at 18, pouring in an eagle putt for nine-under 63. In recent months, Spieth has contended more often than he hasn’t.

But what I enjoyed the most about the clip was the way each Spieth and Greller knew his role and played it to perfection. It made me think of an interview Spieth gave earlier in the week. And it suggested he’s made some progress in his player-caddie relationship.

Before the tournament, Spieth sat down for an interview with Chris Solomon of No Laying Up. Spieth has done this a few times over the years and it’s been insightful each time. But this time, with Spieth “back,” I was especially curious to hear how he’d explain his recent stretch of golf. The entire interview is worth a listen (you can find it here); he breaks down everything from his visit to Butch Harmon to the way money can affect a young pro’s mentality.

But the most telling bit of the interview came from a moment of self-reflection, when Solomon asked his the most embarrassing on-course moment of his career. To his credit, Spieth didn’t choose something embarrassing that had happened to him, but instead something that he had done — and regretted doing — at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Normally, Spieth said, the tee shot at No. 8 at Pebble Beach calls for a hybrid that stays short of the cliff.

“But in the U.S. Open it was so firm that my 4-iron went through,” he remembers. “On the tee I was like, ‘Michael, I can hit this as hard as I want, right?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. You can hit it as hard as you want to.’ And it went through.”

Spieth took a drop from the penalty area, consulted with Greller again — and then missed long again, leaving himself a particularly torturous chip shot.

“I hit an 8-iron, which I was like, ‘Hey, we can’t go over this green, this is a good club, right?’” Spieth remembers. “And again, both of these, I’m hitting the shot, I know the information, I know I don’t have to rip him, I’m trying to force it a little bit. And I end up making like a double or a triple and I kind went off on Michael and it all got caught on camera and microphone.”

The Fox broadcast picked up the entirety of the moment. It wasn’t flattering for Spieth.

“Two perfect shots, Michael,” he muttered as he strode forward, steaming. “You got me in the water on one and over the green on the other.”

Spieth’s memory is slightly off; he actually made an impressive up-and-down for bogey at No. 8 and salvaged an opening-round 72. But when he relived the moment afterwards, he didn’t like what he saw.

“After that round I saw it and I had never been more embarrassed for myself, ever,” Spieth told Solomon. “I was like, ‘Wow. Not only does that look bad, it was bad.’ And boy, I was upset but that was just — that was awful.”

Major news outlets picked up on the moment; it spoke to Spieth’s frustration, the tension of the tournament and the challenges of a player-caddie relationship. The exact soundbite was arguably overplayed; Spieth explained afterwards that he was expressing “frustration, not blame,” and Greller himself didn’t even hear it in real time. But the moment didn’t sit well with Spieth either that night upon rewatching or with months of hindsight.

“Actually, later that year in China they always do the Caddie of the Year, they have a big dinner spread, the caddies are all drinking and it’s really fun, they get a comedian to come do it and it’s a great time,” Spieth said. “And they brought up, ‘Some caddies had good years and some took abuse.’ And they played that clip and I was in the back of the room and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I grabbed a beer and left. I couldn’t watch this again.”

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Back to Thursday, then, and to Dallas, and TPC Craig Ranch. This player-caddie back-and-forth was far better, even if it was Spieth doing all the talking. Spieth made the decision to send it. Greller offer begrudging support. And then Spieth took accountability.

“It’s on me,” he said. He said it twice. He hasn’t gotten rid of the frenzied pre-shot conversations, nor does he want to. But it’s clear that Spieth has no interest in blaming his caddie when he’s the one hitting the ball. And in this case he pulled the shot off, too.

There has never been any doubt that Jordan Spieth is a fundamentally decent human being. But part of being a young star athlete is learning in the glare of the spotlight. There’s always plenty of room for that, too. We can take notes from home.

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