AUGUSTA, Ga. – There was a party at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday evening before this week’s Masters began. It took place on the back lawn, right behind the clubhouse, not far from the first tee. The scene wasn’t considered overly formal, but – like most parties around here – it featured plenty of green jackets.
Really, this was a party for the club’s membership to get reacquainted with one another on the eve of its annual crown jewel. Officials from other golf organizations and a few titans of industry hobnobbed, too. Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails were served. It was a festive little celebration underneath the fading sun, a warm breeze greeting all attendees.
Competitors in the tournament were also invited – and those two dozen competing for the first time were especially encouraged to attend. There might have been a few present, but one source reported seeing only one of the 97 players who are here this week.
That player was Jordan Spieth – and his plus-one was his mom.
“He was allowed to invite one guest,” Chris Spieth said. “I think it was kind of special that he picked me.”
The story could end here and it would still provide terrific insight into the 20-year-old as a person.
But it wouldn’t explain how a guy who tried to hide his ear-to-ear smile walking off the first tee Thursday morning is tied for the lead entering Sunday’s final round. It wouldn’t explain how he’s opened with three under-par scores in his first three competitive rounds on this course. It wouldn’t explain how he could be on the verge of eclipsing Tiger Woods as the youngest Masters champion in history.
No, for that answer, we must look deeper into this party.
Hardly intimidated by the scene, Spieth walked around the hallowed turf and politely shook hands with everyone he met, referring to them as sir or ma’am, just like he always does. At one point, he locked eyes with Jack Nicklaus, who was holding court with a USGA official. They’d only briefly met before, but the six-time Masters champion waved him over and they spoke for a few minutes.
Well, not really.
Nicklaus spoke. Spieth listened.
“Obviously, a guy with six green jackets could have some advice,” Spieth later explained. “He told me that from the middle of these greens, there’s no difficult par.”
It would be shortsighted to suggest that their brief conversation alone has lifted Spieth to his current position on the leaderboard. After all, he’s also received immeasurable advice from fellow University of Texas product Ben Crenshaw, himself a two-time Masters champion. And even at his young age, he’s shown enough talent to win a PGA Tour title, compete in the Presidents Cup and rise to 13th in the world ranking.
The guidance from Nicklaus would have been meaningless if the talent level didn’t already exist.
Through three rounds, though, it’s obvious that this counsel has had a profound effect on the way Spieth has approached this course. Normally an aggressive player, he’s dialed it back to aim for fewer flagsticks in favor of the center of more greens.
“Definitely, yeah, compared to normal,” he affirmed. “I've never picked so many targets at the middle of the greens when I've see the pins on the side and committed to it.
“I'm like, well, I want to go at the pin. But you can't do it here. I have a lot of respect for this golf course.”
His ball-striking abilities are gaining the respect of everybody watching, too.
Spieth is tied for the tournament lead, hitting 75.93 percent of all greens in regulation. During the third round – a day on which he’s often struggled in the past – he hit 13 of 18 greens, good for third place in the field and a second straight score of 2-under 70.
Meanwhile, the man who dispensed such valuable words has been watching. Nicklaus owns six green jackets, but he’s similarly piling up an impressive record of advising Masters champions. Both Trevor Immelman (2008) and Charl Schwartzel (2011) sought his advice prior to their victories. He knows Spieth could keep that every-three-years streak intact.
“He seems like a genuinely nice young man,” Nicklaus told GolfChannel.com. “Jordan is obviously a very good player. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He’s very mature for a 20-year-old.”
That maturity level hasn’t just gotten him into uncharted territory for someone below the legal drinking age. It hasn’t just elevated him to amongst the game’s elite. It hasn’t just placed him on the cusp of becoming the youngest major champion in over a century.
It is because of Spieth’s maturity that when he met Nicklaus this week, he said almost nothing.
He just listened.
“It was really cool getting to talk with him for a few minutes,” Spieth said. “Just being in his presence, knowing he’s the all-time leading major winner and get what I could out of him.”
It is also really cool that a discussion on the back lawn at Augusta National on Wednesday evening between a six-time Masters champion and a first-time competitor has become so important. It will be even cooler if it leads to history.