KAPALUA, Hawaii – It’s damn near impossible to walk the Plantation Course here at Kapalua, a living, breathing definition of poetry in motion, with the breaching whales in the nearby Pacific and rainbows emerging in the sky literally out of thin air, and feel any semblance of pessimism. This is where negative thoughts suffer a heinous death, where the improbable feels probable again.
It is similarly futile to watch a swing from Jordan Spieth, all 20 years of him, lean and confident and all sorts of talented, and conjure any cynical outlooks. This is a kid who entered last year a college dropout and Q-School flameout with no status on any major tour, only to finish it with a victory and a Rookie of the Year trophy and a place within the game's elite on the world ranking.
As if the message needed any greater symbolism, here is Spieth, standing on the 13th fairway during a practice round for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the boundless ocean a few cozy 3-woods in the distance, on Jan. 1, a day of new beginnings, of hopefulness, of optimism and idealism and anticipation. By the time he reaches the green and notices corporate signage from the title sponsor that reads, “NEW THINKING. NEW POSSIBILITIES.” the metaphor is oozing with transparency.
Good vibes reign supreme in Camp Spieth and on this day, at this course, that feeling might be at an all-time high. The kid who still can’t order a Mai Tai in the clubhouse bar, who is still driving a 2007 Yukon with 110,000 miles on it during the rare weeks he’s back home in Dallas, has good reason to be so upbeat. As his caddie Michael Greller says, “We’re still playing with house money.” Last year, Spieth was never expected to win the John Deere Classic or earn nine top-10 finishes or jump into the world’s top 30, so every step of the way was gravy, each achievement considered a pleasant surprise rather than the culmination of predictability.
Cue a few piddly dark storm clouds over Kapalua. That’s because Spieth won’t be overlooked as he charges into his sophomore season, instead competing with increased expectations of success for the first time. If a win and nearly $4 million in PGA Tour earnings were part of last year’s story, then those numbers are simply the low end for public presumption this year.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe he’ll fulfill those lofty expectations and then some, exceeding what any of us could imagine for a 20-year-old, even one with such immense talent.
Chances are, though, he’ll see ebbs and flows, just like every other golfer who has ever played the game. The highs of contending for a tournament on a Sunday afternoon will be offset by the lows of slamming the trunk shut on a Friday evening. That’s not negativity in this world of optimism. It’s just the truth.
Rory McIlroy found this out two years ago. This was when the young Northern Irishman was on the verge of winning Player of the Year on two separate tours, just one season removed from winning a major by eight strokes and two seasons removed from the exact same feat. But at the Memorial Tournament, he was coming off – gasp! – two straight missed cuts and on his way to a third. It was cause for front-page headlines in golf circles, and he was asked about dealing with this kind of attention.
Q: Have you found the more success you've had in your career the more scrutiny there is?
A: Yeah, of course. I think that is the way of life in anything if you're in the spotlight, you're in the public eye. If I'd have missed two cuts in a row a couple years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid, but nowadays it's a little different.
As we stand on the 13th hole, I read McIlroy’s comments to Spieth and ask him how he believes he’ll deal with similar increased scrutiny, especially during those low periods.
“I guess I’ll just try not to miss three cuts in a row,” he says with a smile.
Then he turns serious.
“There are going to be ups and downs. This past year, there weren’t many downs. When they happened, they came at the biggest events, the ones I wanted so badly, so I felt terrible. But there wasn’t any outside influence. Nobody expected anything from me at the majors.
“This year, I’m going to expect more out of myself, because I know what to expect. So yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen if things don’t go my way if I don’t play well in the majors, which is a big emphasis, or I don’t make the Ryder Cup team, which is a big goal of mine. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Not that Spieth minds a little pressure. Just check out his round-by-round scoring averages from last season. Thursday: 70.17; Friday: 69.30; Saturday: 71.33. But on Sunday, when the pressure was greatest and the focus more intense, he posted an average score of 69.22, good for fourth place amongst an entire membership that owned more final-round experience than him.
If the statistics alone aren’t enough to convince, then listen to the stories.
Greller recalls one from the first time he worked with Spieth at the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur that articulates the point perfectly.
“We were on the eighth hole at Gold Mountain during match play and he was struggling. He says, ‘I just need the cameras to come out. I always play better when there are cameras. I’ll get some nerves and when I have good nerves, I play better.’ Most guys are the opposite, but he wants a little bit of that pressure. He thrives on that. That’s been true for the three years I’ve known him.”
External expectations can often eclipse internal aspersions – just ask Tiger Woods – but Spieth has some tangible goals he’s set for the impending season. Some he’s keeping private, others he’ll willfully divulge, such as claiming a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and making the cut at all four major championships while contending in at least one of them.
Those easily outsize last year’s New Year’s Day goals of wanting to win a professional tournament – any professional tournament – and trying to earn some sort of PGA Tour status.
“Last year was weird, because there were some tangible goals at the beginning of the year, but they had to be adjusted,” he explains. “Hopefully the same thing happens this year. Hopefully we accomplish some things early and we’re able to adjust later in the year to some bigger goals. I don’t think there’s a lot bigger than what I’ve set for this year, but there is another step up. I need to get into contention at a major and see how it feels. Not many people win the first time they contend at a major. Ultimately there will be bigger goals, but I’m just trying to set some tangible ones this year that are baby steps.”
He looks toward the ocean, admiring the view aloud. This is his maiden voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, but even surrounded by all this apparent optimism, Spieth understands that a little negativity can go a long way.
Not that he reads articles about himself or watches the pundits predict his upcoming fate. Other than checking his Twitter feed – “if anybody is beating me up on there, I’ll see it,” he says – like many players he keeps himself in a protective bubble from such antagonism. He realizes, though, the benefit of learning from his failures and trying to improve upon them.
“I understand there will be more expectations; I understand that last year was incredible and people can get caught up in the past and not what the next step is,” he contends. “In my mind, the easiest way to deal with that is to look at how I failed this past year. Instead of looking at the good things – I mean, yeah, I’m excited by everything that happened – if I look at last year’s majors or specific stats that need improvement and build a gameplan around them, then I feel like everything else takes care of itself.
“I didn’t get any lazier; I’m not taking anything for granted; I’m not spending any money. So all in all, nothing’s really changed. Last year, I had a lot of things I needed to focus on and a lot of outside pressures. Now that’s all taken care of. The pressure’s off as far as where I’m going to be playing the next week or what kind of status I’ll have. Now I can specifically focus on parts of the schedule and parts of my game.”
By this point, Spieth has been speaking for a while, taking about 10 minutes to not only answer one question, but answer one question thoughtfully and honestly, his maturity clearly superseding his age in matters other than golf.
He then circles back to that McIlroy comment about added scrutiny and how he intends to address it this year.
“To answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it if things don’t go well, but just like in the past I’m going to pretend that they’re little things,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m not too concerned about it.”