HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – When Jordan Spieth began his final round Sunday at Augusta National with two birdies, many marveled at the 21-year-old’s fearlessness.
When he charged in a 20 footer for birdie at the 10th to move a half dozen clear of the field, the collective watched in awe at what could only be described as detached abandon.
And when Spieth rifled his 5-iron second shot at the par-5 13th over the tributary to Rae’s Creek to 14 feet, his competitive moxie appeared beyond reproach.
In just his second Masters, Spieth shifted the paradigm that winning a major championship is more often about dealing with nerves than it is a physical test of hitting golf shots, but then his apparent immunity to pressure is no accident.
Since Spieth was 12 years old, his swing coach Cameron McCormick has conditioned the would-be champion to the stress of competition. Put another way: “Combining the physical and physiological stress in training leads to quantum leaps in performance to bridge the step function of transfer.”
That was a tweet McCormick posted on March 3. On Monday, a day after Spieth won the Masters by four strokes, the Australian patiently obliged when he was asked to put that concept in layman’s terms.
“Essentially what that means is it’s really hard to expect a player who practices in a state of little stress that it’s going to be like that on the course,” McCormick told GolfChannel.com. “You want to simulate as much pressure as you can.”
In practical terms, that means making Spieth feel as uncomfortable as possible when the two are working together.
McCormick said he and Spieth always have “consequences” when they practice. Sometimes that involves your run-of-the-mill cash bets, but most of the time it features a symbolic gesture.
It started with McCormick offering Spieth a hat when he was a pre-teen and advanced to Spieth buying a nice dinner for his girlfriend if he fails a particular task.
According to McCormick, the key is to always make sure there are repercussions and that the duo maintains the delicate balance of challenging such a talented player.
“He’s very competitive. It’s always finding that point where he gets very uncomfortable,” said McCormick, who added that he tried to keep himself as busy as possible on Sunday to avoid the Masters telecast. “He’s the kind of guy who expects to do very well. I’ll push him to the point of frustration, and then I can dial it back.”
Through those drills and a stellar amateur career, Spieth forged a relative indifference to the pressures of competition. He still feels nerves, he’s just become extremely adept at dealing with them.
For McCormick, the transformation of Spieth from Masters runner-up last year to 2015 champion was a similar process.
Following last year’s Masters there was pressure, which was largely internal, to claim his second PGA Tour title and a desire to finish what he stated in 2014 when he took a share of the Masters lead into the final round.
Those pressures, however, manifested themselves in counterproductive ways.
“Last year, he put pressure on himself to validate that first win,” McCormick said. “He realized the pressure he was putting on himself was actually working in reverse.”
It was just before the Ryder Cup when Spieth began to square himself with that concept. He and McCormick made a few putting adjustments at the Australian Open in November, and Spieth dusted the field by six shots.
A week later, he cruised to a 10-stroke victory at the Hero World Challenge, and the die was cast for his Masters masterpiece.
“They learned so much about themselves and their teamwork in Australia was transcendent,” McCormick said of Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller.
Still, even those who have seen the ebb and flow of Spieth’s young career up close were equal parts impressed and surprised that he was able to control his emotions so well with so much on the line.
“Any time, no matter how good someone is or no matter how well you know them, if you told someone a 21-year-old would win the Masters by four strokes in record fashion, you’d have to be surprised,” said Justin Thomas, who first met Spieth when the two were 14 years old at a junior event in Texas.
But after nearly a decade of working with Spieth, McCormick has almost lost the ability to be surprised by anything he does.
Twelve months ago, McCormick talked to Spieth as he was making his way to Hilton Head after his Masters near miss. It was a much different phone call on Monday.
“Last year was more of a way to reflect and regroup as a team,” McCormick recalled. “[Monday’s] call is more looking back on what he’s accomplished. It will be hard to keep my tears back.”
Spieth may have mastered his emotions on the golf course, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy the moment away from the fairways.