ROAD-WEARY JORDAN SPIETH RETURNED TO TEXAS, HOPING TO REGAIN HIS FORM FOR AUGUSTA
YOU CAN'T SAY Austinites didn't try. They all came out for Jordan Spieth at last week's 2016 WGC-Dell Match Play—worshipful kids, beaming women from 16 to 60 and, of course, golf fandom's usual baggy-shorted, knit-shirted, ball-capped bros—some gray, most past the goatee stage, many sober. Spieth's galleries at Austin Country Club, hole by hole, numbered in the high hundreds. Barges and boats bobbed in Lake Austin, one sporting a sheet redubbing it JORDAN RIVER, all crewed by fans urging him—and only him—to "come on," "let's go" or, most creatively, "Hook 'em Horns."
"Arnold Palmer had Arnie's Army: I don't know if you want to call them Jordan's Junkies," says Cody Gribble, Spieth's longtime friend and former teammate at Texas. "But the guy thrives under stuff like that. He starts feeling comfortable when he's got a home crowd cheering him on. And when he gets a bit of momentum? You're not going to stop him."
That was the idea, anyway. What six months ago was shaping up as a homecoming party for the boy king of golf, No. 1 and coming off one of the greatest years in history, had morphed into something of a recovery mission. A fat winter schedule hopscotching to South Korea, China, Australia, the Bahamas, Hawaii, Abu Dhabi and Singapore had left Spieth jetlagged and uncharacteristically snippy as the defense of his 2015 Masters title loomed. After winning by eight shots at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Maui on Jan. 10, he finished no higher than 17th in his next four PGA Tour events. He shot a 79 and missed the cut at the Northern Trust, and in mid-March called out his prized caddie, Michael Greller, at the Valspar Championship for poor decision making.
Spieth had, in other words, what most pros would call a very good stretch—but Spieth isn't most pros. After flirting with the Grand Slam and winning $22 million in 2015, after assuming his role as the golden goose of American golf with startling calm, at 22 Spieth had raised expectations to impossible heights. Any dip would be noticed, especially when the cause seems so clear.
"Jordan didn't take so much time off," said then No. 2 Jason Day in his pre--Match Play press conference. "You've just got to. I said I was worried about him, and I really am. I just don't want him to be burned out, because he is so much a part of the game. He's important to golf."
So it was that by the time play began, home cooking had taken hold as the event's dominant subtext. Austin had been Spieth's college town for three semesters and the site of so many of his amateur victories: What better place for the kid to get right? And in one sense it all worked. Spieth ran over his pool-play opponents—he wasn't extended beyond the 16th hole by Jamie Donaldson, Victor Dubuisson or Justin Thomas—before falling to 16th-ranked Louis Oosthuizen 4 and 2 in a Saturday round of 16 match. He was unofficially nine under par for 46 holes of pool play, picked up his first top 10 finish in nearly two months and saw improving trend lines heading into next week's Masters. "From Tuesday to now, I feel much more confident than I did about Augusta," Spieth said.
Yet in nearly the same breath he admitted he was mystified by his game. After three days of solid ball striking Spieth arrived at the range on Saturday morning and began hitting big slices with his irons. Against the unflappable Oosthuizen, he hit a string of wayward approaches, muttering to Greller on the 6th hole that he had "no control right now." Then after holing a 26-foot birdie putt at the 10th to get to 1 down, he dumped his tee shot into the lake in front of the par-3 11th green. He lost that hole and the next two as well, and like that, his week was essentially over. When Day advanced into the semifinals, he ended Spieth's 20-week reign as world No. 1. (For good measure, Day stormed to the Match Play title, beating third-ranked Rory McIlroy 1 up in the semis before routing Oosthuizen 5 and 4.)
The fact that Spieth, with a playing style marked by relentless efficiency, called his day "bizarre," "uncomfortable" and "very odd" raised eyebrows, of course. But the oddest moment of his postmortem came at the end. When he first claimed the top ranking last August, Spieth called it the achievement of a lifetime. After trading the No. 1 with Day for seven weeks in the fall, Spieth grabbed a firm hold in November: Each surrender of it, he said, had left him uneasy.
Now? Spieth tossed off the most unusual words of his short and ravenous rise: "To be honest, it could be a good thing for me going into the Masters."
"More [pressure] on other people," Spieth replied, walking away. "Less on me."
EARLY IN the first day of pool play Ben Crenshaw planted himself in a shady patch behind the 12th tee. Though he's a hero at Austin Country Club—native son, prized student of legendary coach Harvey Penick, two-time Masters champ—few noticed. Part of that was because Crenshaw, 64, barely moved beneath the oak leaves; his dark aviators and distinctive beak lent him the air of a hawk on high alert. The other reason? Spieth was coming.
He had hit his tee shot at the watery 11th just over the back of the green, and the crowd flowed around it like a sudden tide—three, then four, then eight deep. When Spieth's chip shot raced three feet past the hole, one man uttered, "Guy still has some work to do." Spieth holed the putt, and as he climbed to the 12th tee, he didn't notice Crenshaw either: He may have been 3 up on Donaldson, but as he later put it, he was "brain-dead," too often pulling the wrong club and being too aggressive. As if to demonstrate, he sent his tee shot sailing into a fairway bunker, then led the Junkies down toward the Pennybacker Bridge. He put his second shot at the par-5 in the water.
Like all locals who've watched Spieth for years, the Godfather of Texas golf is unperturbed by the last two months. "We only had Jordan here one year, but I met and played with him one time and instantly knew there was something different about him," Crenshaw said. "I could see it in his eyes and the way that he played, the way he carried himself. And I'm just having the best time watching him carry on that Texas tradition."
Much of that different has to do with Spieth's knack for shaking off bad swings, holes, rounds in punishing fashion; the 68 he shot after that 79 at Riviera is as much a signature as anything he scribbles on a golf ball. "I've never seen bounce-backs like his," says Gribble. "If he makes a mistake, you can guarantee a fire has just been lit on his ass—and he'll just go."
The most dramatic bounce-back, of course, occurred at Augusta in 2015: A year after coughing up a final-round lead to Bubba Watson, Spieth tore the place apart with a record-tying, 18-under 270. Then he became the youngest U.S. Open champion in 92 years, finished a shot out of the playoff at the British Open and was second to Day at the PGA Championship.
It was hardly a new pattern. As a freshman at Dallas Jesuit High, Spieth lost the 2008 state championship after being penalized two strokes for "giving advice"—and came back and won it the next three years. Just as telling is the fact that Spieth wasn't "advising" at all: He was talking trash. As he remembers it, Alex Moon, a future teammate at Texas, "was giving me crap; I can't repeat everything that was said. I must have weighed 130 pounds, and he outdrove me and let me know there was a Walmart in between [our shots]. Then I busted a 3-wood up to the front of the green on the par-5, and I called back over to him, something like, 'Try and get closer than my 3-wood!'" (Spieth's sharing his club choice was considered "advice.")
As a freshman in 2012, Spieth led the Longhorns to the national championship, their first since Crenshaw's crew had won four decades earlier. Before the match-play final against Alabama, he begged coach John Fields to pit him against longtime rival and close friend Justin Thomas. "I got his number," Spieth insisted. Then he took down Thomas 3 and 2. "He had edged me out for Player of the Year in college by something like a 10th of a stroke or a couple hundredths of a stroke or something bizarre," Spieth said last week. "I wanted him."
That "it factor, the clutch gene," as his brother, Steven, calls it, explains much of the swelling galleries nationwide. And bros love that he's still a bro surrounded by bros: Moon and former Longhorn Kramer Hickok are now housemates in the North Dallas digs that Spieth bought from fellow Tour player Hunter Mahan in December for a reported $7 million. "The chants and support: He loves it," says Jordan's father, Shawn. "It would make some people anxious, but it has a calming effect on him."
You could see that on Friday, at least, when Spieth again gutted the 33rd-ranked Thomas 3 and 2. As he strode down the 15th fairway, the gallery on the right side yelled, "TEXAS!" and the one on the left answered, "FIGHT!" He smiled, called it "really cool." A nice scene, all in all, for his last day on top.
SPIETH SAID in Austin that he has no regrets about his winter schedule, but Shawn concedes that it left his son taxed. "He's learning," he says. "He underestimated what that would do to him; he's realizing that. Plus, at that point he was No. 1. So now you've got self-expectations, and I think it's as much mental and emotional as it is physical when you go through that."
Still, Spieth has had plenty of sessions recently with his longtime swing coach, Cameron McCormick, seeking to regain his championship feel. The meetings haven't always been pleasant.
"Spieth is bouncing off the walls all the time, talking fast, trying to figure it out," says Gribble, who's toiling these days on the Web.com tour. "I've seen him and Cameron have a bunch of fights when they're talking over this or that little thing because [Spieth] is very precise and wanting [it] done the right way. But it really doesn't bother him, what the media's saying. I think he knows he's close."
This much is certain: Spieth's confidence isn't dented. Two weeks ago he and Gribble were playing a game called Wolf with three others at Dallas National. Gribble, the wolf at one par-3, hit his tee shot 30 feet from the hole. Playing next, Spieth put his ball closer. Gribble was leaning toward choosing him as his partner, but of course, someone could hit it closer still.
"How far is that?" Gribble asked.
"Probably 15 feet," Spieth replied. "And I'm the best in the world from that spot, so you should probably pick me."
Gribble laughs. He calls Spieth one of his best friends, "and I just want to wrap my f------ 7-iron around his f------ neck," he says. "But the guy's right. He backs it up better than anybody." (Yes, Gribble picked him and, yes, Spieth drained the putt.)
So credit that, or last year's magic, or the fact that he has built up so much capital with those close to him. Spieth will play in Houston this week, one final tune-up before he heads to Augusta. Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have won back-to-back green jackets, but Gribble is unfazed.
"You can quote me: He's going to win the Masters," he says. "Everyone thinks that his year has hit the skids. When he gets on the big stage and people are watching him, they expect him to win. The crazy thing is, he expects it more."
"THE CHANTS," SHAWN SAYS, "HAVE A CALMING EFFECT ON HIM."
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Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno for Sports Illustrated
GALLERY SHOW In front of his rabid fans in Austin, Spieth dominated his group-stage matches at the WGC-Dell Match Play before falling in the round of 16.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno for Sports Illustrated
SIGN OF THE TIMES Spieth's wide-ranging appeal is evident in the crowds he draws weekly—"Jordan's Junkies," Gribble calls them.
Photographs by Kohjiro Kinno for Sports Illustrated
UP AND DOWN Spieth's uneven 2016—one Tour win, one missed cut—hasn't concerned fellow Texas alumnus Crenshaw (bottom left).