Spieth: 20, and really something

By Joe PosnanskiApril 13, 2014, 12:30 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – There’s a fun scene in the movie “Big” where Tom Hanks, playing the grown-up version of a 13-year-old boy, is talking to a neurotic and increasingly jaded co-worker named Susan. He tells her that she’s nice.

“You don’t know me that well,” Susan says.

“Yes I do,” he says. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve met.”

She looks at him – there’s just this wonderful innocence on his face, completely devoid of cynicism and world-weariness and all the things that she had grown accustomed to in the adult world. She is so disarmed by his look, so disarmed by the childhood wonder on his face, that all of her defenses just fall away and she is, in this crazy way, happy.

“How do you do it?” she asks.

That’s the question I think people really wanted to ask Jordan Spieth Saturday evening. How do you do it? The questions were mostly about the astonishing story that builds around him. Spieth is 20 years old. He’s at his first Masters. And he goes into Sunday tied with Bubba Watson for the lead. Nothing at all about this makes much sense.

Look: No first-timer has won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller somehow beat Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff in 1979. No 20-year-old has ever won it. This, after all, is Augusta National. The most used word Masters week – with the possible exceptions of  “patron” and “tradition" and “pimento cheese” – is “experience.” All you ever hear about is how experience, course knowledge, a sense of the land is imperative if you want to contend. Six 50-somethings made the cut this year. Augusta National is a country for old men.

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So Jordan Spieth going into Sunday’s final round tied for the lead is an absurd, amazing, crazy story.

So questions revolved around that. But there’s something even more amazing about Jordan Spieth than his dazzling golf game. Tiger Woods as a young man was no mystery to anyone. He came to win. He came to conquer. He never hid his hunger, his ambition, his intense belief that nobody in the world could beat him.

First time he came to Augusta as a 19-year-old amateur phenom, people asked him what he hoped to learn from the experience.

“I came to win,” Woods said, and he meant it.

While a few of the old-timers might have blanched a bit at the chutzpah, there was no missing the essence of the young Tiger Woods. He did not come to joke around or to hang out with the old legends. He was not here to take in the atmosphere or to have his photo taken at the Hogan Bridge. He was not here to smell the azaleas. He was Alexander the Great, and he came to get what he believed was rightfully his.

Two years later, when he became the youngest champion in Masters history – and did it by 12 shots – everybody understood exactly where it came from.

But Jordan Spieth – how does he do it? There is no bravado. He’s quirky and funny and respectful and agreeable. There is no talk of destiny. There is no talk of winning. He falls to his knees at No. 12 as he prays for his ball to stay on the green (it does). He gives himself little pep talks right on the course: “We’re going to be all right,” or “We’ll make bogey at worst,” or “Hit the smart shot” and so on. He talks about being so nervous out there that he’s losing his hair (at age 20!). He talks about how much it means to him to be here.

“I’m 20, and this is the Masters, and this is the tournament I’ve always dreamt about,” he says happily.

Also, there’s the Mister thing. He calls the great golfers “Mister.” He doesn’t do this awkwardly; it’s clearly part of his makeup. Mr. Crenshaw was helpful. Mr. Nicklaus helped out, too. When someone asks him how old someone needs to be to earn the “Mister” honorific, he says that anyone older than him gets it.

“So you’ll call Bubba ‘Mister?’” he’s asked, referring to his co-leader.

“Yeah, Mr. Watson for sure,” he says, and he smiles. “Just because it’ll mess with him.”

Tiger Woods would have seen such admissions and chumminess and openness as signs of weakness. I don’t mean this as any sort of judgment. That was the right way for Tiger Woods; he needed to create an aura around himself, a sense of invincibility. He did that, and it led him to become for 10 years or so the greatest golfer anyone has ever seen. Through the years other young golfers – Rory McIlroy included – found themselves trying to be like Tiger, even if it did not fit their nature.

But Jordan Spieth seems entirely comfortable being Jordan Spieth. He had a spectacular amateur career, becoming only second player (along with Tiger Woods) to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateurs. He led Texas to a national championship his one year in college, then went to the U.S. Open as an amateur and finished 21st. He turned pro and finished second in his third tournament. He won a tournament last July at age 19. That made him the first teenager to win a PGA Tour event since the year the Empire State Building was finished.

He came to Augusta filled with all the joy and hope of a 20-year-old who has been dreaming about the place all his life. You couldn’t be around the kid without feeling … happy. Sure, he came to contend. He’s confident in his ability. Spieth’s golfing brilliance comes out of his quick ability to learn, his unnatural calm and incredible touch around the greens. There’s a beautiful simplicity to his game: He sees the shot and then he hits it.

For instance: At No. 10 he found himself at the bottom of a steep hill facing an absurdly harsh shot up to the green. On CBS, three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo talked about the countless things that could go wrong and the extreme difficulty of the shot. He made it sound roughly like trying to tightrope across Niagara Falls.

Spieth promptly hit the simplest looking shot that rolled to 2 feet from the cup, where he made his routine par.

“These youngsters!” Faldo blurted out with amazement in his voice.

But it’s Spieth’s energy, his easygoing way, his eagerness to learn and experience everything about Augusta that put him at the center of the gallery’s focus. Of course, nobody knows what happens on Sunday. But at this moment, the 20-year-old kid looks like the sturdiest player in the field. Saturday was a wild day as the greens hardened and slickened – by the end of the day players were calling those greens “frightening” and “on the edge.”

“It was crazy, crazy fast out there,” Spieth himself says. “I’ve never putted on greens like that before.”

But while the tournament tossed and turned, while golfers got hot and then golfers got cold, while Gary Woodland tied a course record with a 30 on the first nine holes and 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez shot a 66 while second-round leader Bubba Watson couldn’t get any of his putts to the hole and Matt Kuchar rolled a putt 35 feet past the hole on 18 … Spieth was a rock. He made four birdies, two bogeys, held together.

“Tomorrow is about seeing how I can control my game and emotions out on the golf course,” he says.

Well, can he control his game and emotions? On Sunday? At his first Masters? At age 20?

“You draw on memories of guys that have made the putts on the last hole – from Phil to Tiger to last year with Adam,” he says. “You just dream of what it would mean and how cool it would be and all those putts I hit when I was real young with my friends … to win the Masters.”

He had this great look on his face. It was the Tom Hanks look from “Big.” With that, people all around remembered being kids and trying their own putts to win the Masters of their imaginations.

“You know,” Spieth says, “I would love the opportunity to test it tomorrow.”

Twenty years old. How does he do it?

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First Look: WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play groups

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 11:30 pm

It's officially match play time.

The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play kicks off this week in Austin, where 64 of the top players will square off in a combination of round robin play and single elimination. The top 16 players in the field will serve as top seeds in each of the 16 groups this week, while their round-robin opponents were drawn randomly from three different pods Monday night.

Here's a look at the four-player groups that will begin play Wednesday, with the winner from each of the 16 groups advancing to knockout play beginning Saturday:

Group 1: (1) Dustin Johnson, (32) Kevin Kisner, (38) Adam Hadwin, (52) Bernd Wiesberger

Johnson never trailed en route to victory last year, and he'll start with a match against the Austrian. Kisner has missed three of his last four cuts, while Hadwin enters off three straight top-12 finishes.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm, (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat, (43) Chez Reavie, (63) Keegan Bradley

Rahm will start with a match against a former major winner in Bradley, while a match against fellow Arizona State alum Reavie looms the following day. Rounding out the group is Aphibarnrat, who won in Brunei two weeks ago.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth, (19) Patrick Reed, (34) Haotong Li, (49) Charl Schwartzel

All eyes in this group will be on the Spieth-Reed match Friday as the former Ryder Cup teammates square off. But don't sleep on Li, who finished third at The Open in July, or Schwartzel, a former Masters champ.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama, (30) Patrick Cantlay, (46) Cameron Smith, (53) Yusaku Miyazato

This group will kick off with an all-Japanese match between Matsuyama and Miyazato. Cantlay earned his first career victory in Las Vegas in October, while Smith teamed with Jonas Blixt for a team win in April.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia, (20) Xander Schauffele, (41) Dylan Frittelli, (62) Shubankhar Sharma

Garcia is getting set to defend his title at Augusta National in two weeks, but first he'll face a group that includes Sharma who impressed at the last WGC event along with reigning Rookie of the Year Schauffele and former Texas Longhorn Frittelli.

Group 9: (9) Tommy Fleetwood, (26) Daniel Berger, (33) Kevin Chappell, (58) Ian Poulter

This group kicks off with an all-English battle between Fleetwood and Poulter, while Berger and Chappell were both members of the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup team in the fall.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez, (24) Gary Woodland, (37) Webb Simpson, (50) Si Woo Kim

Perez and Woodland are already winners this season in Malaysia and Phoenix, respectively, while Simpson finished T-8 in Tampa two weeks ago and Kim will soon defend his Players title at TPC Sawgrass.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar, (27) Ross Fisher, (47) Yuta Ikeda, (54) Zach Johnson

Johnson is the lowest-ranked player in this group, but he'll make his 14th straight start in the event. Kuchar headlines the quartet while Fisher challenged at this event a year ago and Ikeda will look to make a splash in a rare PGA Tour start.

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Randall's Rant: Hey, loudmouth, you're not funny

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 10:30 pm

Dear misguided soul:

You know who you are.

You’re “that guy.”

You’re that guy following around Rory McIloy and yelling “Erica” at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

There was something creepy in the nature of your bid to get in McIlroy’s head, in the way you hid in the shadows all day. Bringing a guy’s wife into the fray that way, it’s as funny as heavy breathing on the other end of a phone call.

You’re that guy telling Justin Thomas you hope he hits it in the water at the Honda Classic.

There are a million folks invested in seeing if Thomas can muster all the skills he has honed devoting himself to being the best in the world, and you’re wanting to dictate the tournament’s outcome. Yeah, that’s what we all came out to see, if the angry guy living in his mother’s basement can make a difference in the world. Can’t-miss TV.

You’re that guy who is still screaming “Mashed Potatoes” at the crack of a tee shot or “Get in the Hole” with the stroke of a putt.

Amusing to you, maybe, but as funny as a fart in an elevator to the rest of us.

As a growing fraternity of golf fans, you “guys” need a shirt. It could say, “I’m that guy” on one side and “Phi Kappa Baba Booey” on the other.

I know, from outside of golf, this sounds like a stodgy old geezer screaming “Get off my lawn.” That’s not right, though. It’s more like “Stop puking on my lawn.”

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Because McIlroy is right, in the growing number of incidents players seem to be dealing with now, it’s probably the liquor talking.

The Phoenix Open is golf’s drunken uncle, but he isn’t just visiting on the holiday now. He’s moving in.

What’s a sport to do?

McIlroy suggested limiting liquor sales at tournaments, restricting alcohol consumption to beer.

I don’t know, when the beer’s talking, it sounds a lot like the liquor talking to me, just a different dialect.

From the outside, this push-back from players makes them sound like spoiled country club kids who can’t handle the rough-and-tumble playgrounds outside their prim little bailiwick. This isn’t really about social traditions, though. It’s about competition.

It’s been said here before, and it’s worth repeating, golf isn’t like baseball, basketball or football. Screaming in a player’s backswing isn’t like screaming at a pitcher, free-throw shooter or field-goal kicker. A singular comment breaking the silence in golf is more like a football fan sneaking onto the sidelines and tripping a receiver racing toward the end zone.

Imagine the outrage if that happened in an NFL game.

So, really, what is golf to do?

Equip marshals with tasers? Muzzle folks leaving the beer tent? Prohibit alcohol sales at tournaments?

While the first proposition would make for good TV, it probably wouldn’t be good for growing the sport.

So, it’s a tough question, but golf’s governing bodies should know by now that drunken fans can’t read those “Quiet Please!” signs that marshals wave. There will have to be better enforcement (short of tasers and muzzles).

There’s another thing about all of this, too. Tiger Woods is bringing such a broader fan base to the game again, with his resurgence. Some of today’s younger players, they didn’t experience all that came with his ascendance his first time around. Or they didn’t get the full dose of Tigermania when they were coming up.

This is no knock on Tigermania. It’s great for the game, but there are challenges bringing new fans into the sport and keeping them in the sport.

So if you’re “that guy,” welcome to our lawn, just don’t leave your lunch on it, please.


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How Faxon became 'The Putting Stroke Whisperer'

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 9:39 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – During a charity event a few years ago Brad Faxon was asked what he’s thinking about when he putts. A hush fell across the green as everyone within earshot eagerly awaited the answer.

Imagine having the chance to quiz Leonardo da Vinci about the creative process, or Ben Hogan on the finer points of ball-striking. Arguably the best putter of his generation, if anyone could crack the complicated code of speed, line and pace, it would be Faxon.

Faxon mulled the question for a moment, shrugged and finally said, “Rhythm and tempo.”

If Faxon’s take seems a tad underwhelming, and it did that day to everyone in his group, the genius of his simplicity was on display last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Before arriving at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy ranked 124th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting, losing .1 strokes per round to the field. In fact, he’d missed the cut a week earlier at the Valspar Championship when he needed 58 putts for two days and made just a single attempt over 10 feet.

It’s one of those competitive ironies that having the weekend off turned out to be just what McIlroy needed. He went home to South Florida to work on his game and ran across Faxon at The Bear’s Club.

Although Faxon’s take on the art of putting was probably more involved than it had been a few years earlier, he seemed to have touched on all the right points.

“Freed up my head more than my stroke,” McIlroy explained. “I sort of felt like maybe complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts.”

Earlier in the week McIlroy had a slightly different take on his putting turnaround at Bay Hill, where he led the field in strokes gained: putting, picking up 10 shots for the week, and rolled in 49 feet of putts over his last five holes to end a victory drought that had stretched back to the 2016 Tour Championship.

“Just playing around with it. Seeing balls go in in the front edge, trying to hit them in the left edge, the right edge, hit them off the back of the cup,” he said on Thursday. “Just trying to get a little bit more feel into it and a little more flow.”

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If that doesn’t exactly sound like an exact science, welcome to the Faxon way. In recent years, he’s become something of F which is no huge surprise considering his status as one of the game’s best on the greens.

Between 1991, the year he won the first of eight Tour titles, through 2005, the year he won his last, Faxon ranked outside the top 20 in putting average just four times, and he led the circuit in that category three of those years. But in recent years he’s come into his own as a putting guru.

“The first clinic I attended that a Tour player gave, it was Hale Irwin, and he talked about rhythm and tempo, I was disappointed because I wanted to hear more than that,” Faxon explained. “I thought there would be more technical stuff. I thought it was the default phrase to take pressure off the player, but the more I’ve learned about teaching the best players in the world don’t have many complicated thoughts.”

Faxon’s career has been nothing short of impressive, his eight Tour titles spanning two decades; but it’s his work with players like McIlroy and Gary Woodland that has inspired him in recent years.

A man who has spent his life studying the nuances of the golf swing and putting stroke has created a teaching philosophy as simple, or complicated depending on the player, as rhythm and tempo.

“He teaches me, which is a good thing. He doesn’t have a philosophy,” Woodland said. “I was around him a lot in 2011, 2010, it’s unbelievable how well he can relay it now. He has video of a million guys putting and he’s one of the best to do it, but he can show you that you don’t have to do it one certain way and that was good for me.”

For Woodland, Faxon keyed in on his background as a college basketball player and compared the putting stroke to how he shoots free-throws. For McIlroy, it was a different sport but the concept remained the same.

“We were talking about other sports where you have to create your own motion, a free-throw shooter, a baseball pitcher, but what related to him was a free-kicker in soccer, he mentioned Wayne Rooney,” Faxon said. “You have to have something to kick start your motion, maybe it’s a trigger, some might use a forward press, or tapping the putter like Steve Stricker, sometimes it’s finding the trigger like that for a player.”

Faxon spent “a good two hours” with McIlroy last weekend at The Bear’s Club, not talking technique or method, but instead tapping into the intuitive nature of what makes someone a good putter. Midway through that session Faxon said he didn’t need to say another word.

The duo ended the session with a putting contest. Putting 30-footers to different holes, the goal was to make five “aces.” Leading the contest 4-2, Faxon couldn’t resist.

“Hey Rory, after you win Bay Hill this week you’ll have to tell the world you lost to Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” Faxon joked.

McIlroy proceeded to hole three of his next four attempts to win the contest. “I’m going to tell everyone I beat Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” McIlroy laughed.

Maybe it’s the way he’s able to so easily simplify an exceedingly complicated game, maybe it’s a resume filled with more clutch putts than one could count. Whatever it is, Faxon is good at teaching. More importantly, he’s having fun and doing something he loves.

“I have a hard time being called a teacher or a coach, it was more of a conversation with Rory, being able to work with someone like Rory is as excited as I’ve ever been in my career,” Faxon said. “It meant much more to me than it did Rory.”

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Frittelli fulfilled promise by making Match Play field

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:40 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Dylan Frittelli attended the University of Texas and still maintains a residence in Austin, so in an odd way this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is a home game for the South African who plays the European Tour.

Frittelli actually attended the event last year as a spectator, when he watched the quarterfinal matches on Saturday afternoon, and made a promise to himself.

“I told a lot of people, I was running into them. I said, ‘I'll be here next year, I'll be playing in this tournament,’” said Frittelli, who climbed to 45th in the world ranking after two victories last year in Europe. “People looked at me, you're 190 in the world, that's hard to get to 64. It was a goal I set myself.”

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Frittelli’s next goal may be a little payback for a loss he suffered in college when he was a teammate of Jordan Spieth’s. Frittelli is making his first start at the Match Play and could face his old Longhorn stable mate this week depending on how the brackets work out and his play.

“We had the UT inter-team championship. Coach switched it to match play my senior year, and Jordan beat me in the final at UT Golf Club. It was 3 and 2,” Frittelli said. “So I'm not too keen to face him again.