It’s just a tiny movement of his head, a peek up, not even discernible to the people who line the ropes of every hole Jordan Spieth plays these days. It is a golf trick as metaphor. When Spieth prepares for a short putt — the kind we all miss but pros have to make — he doesn’t look at the ball. He looks at the hole. He looks ahead.
“He paid too much attention on his path, on his backstroke,” said Tiger Woods, who enjoyed his breakthrough win at the 1997 Masters, when Spieth was 3. “That was a way to eliminate it. It’s not that he has the yips. It’s just that his eyes will look at the path.”
Spieth’s path this week puts him at Congressional Country Club, where he will be both Woods’s guest and competition at the Quicken Loans National. For most 20-year-olds, this would be an opportunity to test skills against the best the PGA Tour has to offer. Except at 20, Spieth is already among the best the PGA Tour has to offer.
“Watching him,” five-time major winner Phil Mickelson said, “is a lot of fun.”
What’s behind Spieth, on his backswing: contention in a tour event at 16; the decision to leave the University of Texas midway through his sophomore year and turn pro; the validation of that decision by winning a PGA Tour event last summer, before he turned 20; putting himself in position to be a captain’s choice for the victorious Presidents Cup team; and a share of the lead at his first Masters, headed into the final round, before tying for second.
What’s ahead, as he looks to the hole? Perhaps the brightest future in golf. Consider that when he became the top-ranked junior, the summer in which he was turning 16, Spieth decided he wanted to be ranked first at every level along the way. Top-ranked amateur? Check. Top-ranked in the world? Well, not yet. He’s only up to No. 9.
“Now, I’m on the quest for the next one,” Spieth said in an interview Monday. “This one is a little bit harder.”
His little move on those short putts — which he thinks he has rid himself of, for the time being — is instructive on this whole process. A year ago at this very tournament, which he led alone in the early parts of the third round, Spieth began fiddling around with his look-at-the-hole-not-the-ball strategy. A big part of the reason, he said, was the pressure he felt, pressure that could exist if he was 39 rather than 19.
“I went through a stage where I just had a lot of tension on short putts,” Spieth said. “I just got way too technical and not as feel-based.”
Spieth, though, must play with emotion, rely on what he sees and senses. German Martin Kaymer won the U.S. Open in resounding style with a ball-striking display that fits his natural heritage, based on precision, an engineer’s championship. Spieth is from Texas, and carries with him the requisite kick-open-the-bar-door swagger.
“I’m not a range rat,” he said. “I’m not a technique junky. I’m not a person who read about somebody else who swung the club and decided I wanted to swing exactly like that.”
Rather, he played — and plays — by instinct. Growing up in Dallas, he thrived not on instruction but on competition. It is part of his game that survives today, even as his repertoire has become more refined. Spieth’s instinct, when a tournament title is in the offing, is to shape shots into greens more than is necessary — almost because he can.
“It’s like I try to put the pedal down,” Spieth said.
Which is a quality that more seasoned players absolutely love.
Mickelson has long thrived on playing matches in Tuesday practice rounds before big events. Last year, he invited Spieth to team with veteran Steve Stricker in a match in which Mickelson partnered with Keegan Bradley prior to the Tour Championship in Atlanta. They have since played several times, most recently when Spieth and Justin Thomas beat Mickelson and Rickie Fowler at the U.S. Open.
“That’s the way I’ve always done it,” Spieth said. “I always liked playing some kind of match. You’re having to make putts on those greens instead of just jacking 30-footers. I enjoy it.”
And it allows him to show off his skills — his feel for the game — in a different setting.
“His strength is his ability to create shots,” Mickelson said the day he lost to Spieth and Thomas. “He has every shot you could want to hit, every shot with an iron. And he’s not afraid to use it in competition to get back some of those pins. His short game is exceptional. Watching him . . . pushes me to do the same thing, to keep my creativity, to get the ball back to some of those pins and hit the shot necessary. It’s fun to watch.”
That’s the fun: The totality of it. Break down Spieth’s game, and there’s nothing, statistically, that stands out. He’s 6 feet 1 but doesn’t bomb the ball, ranking just 90th on tour in driving distance. He’s similarly middling in accuracy (127th) and hitting greens in regulation (103rd), a bit better on the greens, where he ranks 29th in strokes gained putting.
But what he does do well happens to be the most important thing: He can score. Spieth’s average of 69.76 strokes per round ranks ninth on tour.
“He has enough power to do really well for a long time,” Woods said. “And he’s one of those kids where he’s so competitive that I think he will do really well for a long time.”
That is Spieth’s goal and intention.
Monday, he endured the rigamarole that comes along with a person in his position, playing in a sponsor’s outing, shaking hands and slapping backs. Thursday, when he tees it up for real at Congressional, he’ll do so looking at the hole, looking ahead — with the No. 1 ranking in the world, and a universe of other possibilities, all out there for him.