Gary Player, a nine-time major winner and one of five men to win the career grand slam, is never at a loss for words. But prior to the 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, Player couldn’t put together an articulate response when pressed to describe the characteristics that distinguish great golfers.
“There is that thing called ‘it’, and I can’t describe it. And nobody can,” Player said in the press conference. He then rattled off a series of questions intended to identify the traits the great players possess. “Can you accept adversity? Can you enjoy pain? Can you keep your cool at the right time? Will you play the right shot at the right time? Will you accept a three-putt and go to the next tee with a positive attitude?”
Jordan Spieth doesn’t wield the prettiest swing, and he isn’t among the game’s power players. But he does exhibit an uncanny ability to score. He keeps his cool. He maintains a positive attitude. He seems to relish adversity, and he thrives amid the toughest golf environments, namely the major championships. He seems to simply have the “it” factor. And he knows it, too.
Spieth Has His Own Formula for Success
Just 22 years old, Spieth already has hit upon a remarkably effective formula for success. Since December he has won four times, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. He won the Masters wire-to-wire, making him only the seventh man ever to win the Green Jacket by leading after all four rounds. And he won the U.S. Open by converting a birdie on the 72nd hole after three-putting on the previous green. He led three of the four rounds there, meaning he sat in first place after seven of eight rounds in the first two majors combined, a feat never before accomplished.
“I can’t give my secrets away. That wouldn’t be right,” Spieth said with a playful grin in his winner’s press conference at the U.S. Open, where he won his third PGA Tour title of the season. “No, it’s a feeling. It’s a mental attitude. It’s a certain focus. It’s a certain preparation. But I’d rather not get into it.”
Much of what makes Spieth successful is his maturity. Growing up in a home with a special needs sibling (his sister, Ellie, is autistic) has kept him grounded, despite a string of successes. Spieth told Golf Digest that Ellie was “the best thing that ever happened to [his] family.” Watching her struggles has given him a measure of calm amid the high pressure of championship golf.
And his calm attitude has paid off. Spieth’s quick rise started when he claimed two U.S. Junior Amateur championships and won three tournaments in his only collegiate season at the University of Texas, leading the Longhorns to the NCAA title. He’s also the youngest player with two major titles since Gene Sarazen in 1922. Neither Tiger Woods nor Jack Nicklaus accomplished this at such a young age.
Winning the 2013 John Deere Classic in his rookie professional season made Spieth, then 19, the first teenager in 82 years to win a PGA Tour event. Ralph Guldahl was the last at the 1931 Santa Monica Open. In 69 PGA Tour starts, Spieth has collected five wins. He also has a victory in the 2014 Australian Open and in the Hero World Challenge, which he won in back-to-back weeks by six and 10 strokes, respectively.
His presence of mind was on display last week via the smallest of gestures. At the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, Spieth was not too happy about completing an even-par 70 on the difficult South Course at Firestone Country Club. He wanted to work on his game after speaking with the media, but he knew that fans were waiting for him to sign autographs. So, he instructed his agent to talk to the awaiting multitudes.
“Go tell the kids over there,” Spieth said, “that I’m heading to the range to hit some balls, and I’ll take care of them after I practice.”
Spieth’s Highlight Reel Runs Deep
Although Spieth’s success is amazing for his age, his attitude and mental toughness is what stands out about him. His teammates, coach, opponents and others have all commented on Spieth.
Spieth’s competitiveness and natural abilities were evident at an early age. His coach, Cameron McCormack, tells USA Today the story of throwing a ball into the rough to see how the then 12-year-old Spieth would react to the challenge. Spieth said nothing and then holed the chip shot. “His highlight reel runs deep with these types of experiences.”
Spieth told The DIG a story about playing in his junior club championship and bending his putter after missing a series of birdie putts. He didn’t mean to bend it, but he kicked the shaft hard enough to damage the club significantly. “Then I birdied three holes on the back nine with it and shot a pretty good score, good enough that I was going to be in the hunt (to win),” he said. “But I turned myself in and told the head pro that I had played with a damaged club. I thought it might be a two-stroke penalty. Nope. I was disqualified.”
Regardless of him being disqualified, the fact that he rose to the challenge and kept his integrity says a lot about him as a player.
“He’s gritty, he’s fiery, and he doesn’t give up on any shot,” his caddie, Michael Greller told reporters at the U.S. Open.
Spieth told the Associated Press that his goals for 2015 were to make the U.S. Presidents Cup team and contend in a major. Instead, he won two majors and came up one stroke of a third at the British Open at St. Andrews. He has a chance next week to accomplish another feat, one not even Woods or Nicklaus accomplished: winning all three American majors in one year — the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
“I’m getting the gist of things,” Spieth said with his now-familiar understated way. Getting it? We’d say he’s got it. And also that thing called “it.”