CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Go ahead and give it your best shot.
Jordan Spieth will sit patiently as you try to assign extra pressure and increased meaning to this year’s PGA Championship. He’ll even nod slightly as the 18th rendition of the same question varies ever so slightly before returning to a common endpoint.
Then he’ll deftly deflect it away, displaying the same relaxed nature he might use to knock in a 3-foot putt.
The refrain from Team Spieth, both this week and last, has been consistent: this PGA Championship represents a free roll.
While the desire to snag the final leg of the career Grand Slam is certainly present, Spieth remains confident that he’ll eventually get his hands around the Wanamaker Trophy even if things don’t go his way at Quail Hollow. It’s the kind of confidence that a trio of major titles at age 24 can foster, and it’s a sentiment once shared by the likes of Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, both of whom never sealed the deal.
But the belief and exuberance of youth is undeniable in listening to Spieth, who is again approaching the heights he reached during his magical 2015 season. And with any lingering doubts from his 2016 Masters collapse erased emphatically at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is poised to embark on a major test with as little baggage as possible.
“I think when we get into these high-pressure situations, when I get off-course a little bit, there’s no negativity that comes into play in my mind, and maybe that makes a difference,” Spieth said. “I mean, I’ve already had enough not go well that I’ve almost accepted, ‘OK, if this doesn’t work out then it doesn’t work out; I’m going to have more chances.’ Just that kind of freedom allows me to take the fear away of any potential bad situation.”
Spieth rolling downhill without fear of consequence is a scary proposition for the other 155 players gathered this week, especially given his recent flair for the dramatic that included a playoff hole-out at the Travelers Championship and his memorable close to capture the claret jug.
“He has that intangible of when he doesn’t have his best stuff, like Hartford, the back nine, to still find a way to win,” said Phil Mickelson. “When you say put your finger on it, you can’t really identify and say it’s this or it’s that. It’s just that indescribable trait that he has, to find a way to get it done, find the will to win.”
Of course, that will was shaken to its core 16 months ago at Augusta National when Spieth watched a second green jacket slip through his fingers. The scars from that loss are well-worn and have been discussed at length, but now that Spieth has added to his major total he appears visibly looser when discussing their impact on his psyche.
Having returned to the top of the game, he speaks with a degree of self-assurance that would be otherwise absent had he not first had to stare into the abyss.
“I mean, I’ve gone through what will probably and hopefully be the worst loss of my career in the most public eye that golf has,” Spieth said. “So everything else that could happen is much lesser, and therefore has probably helped me since then to focus and only see the positive that could come out of a situation.”
There are plenty of positives to be had this week in North Carolina, where Spieth insists he won’t be pre-occupied with trying to become the youngest player to ever capture golf’s four biggest events.
The focus, instead, will be on “playing free.” After his news conference, Spieth told a handful of reporters that the toughest memory from The Open in 2015, when his T-4 finish derailed hopes of a single-season slam, had nothing to do with how he played the 72nd hole.
Instead he pointed to how he approached his tee shot on the 17th hole. After draining a lengthy putt to take the lead, Spieth considered taking a risky angle over the edge of the Old Course Hotel. It was a line would have brought double bogey into play, but a well-executed shot would have set up an easy par.
Instead he played safe down the left side and averted disaster, but still ended up making a bogey that ultimately cost him a spot in the playoff.
“It’s one of my bigger regrets in golf,” Spieth said.
Once again nearing the heights of that summer and again making the game look easy, it’s a mistake a liberated Spieth won’t make again this time around.
“I wasn’t thinking about it then, but if I was truly free I wouldn’t have cared,” Spieth said. “That’s kind of the way I feel now. Take the risk.”