PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The first time around, the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course can be disconcerting.
“Pete Dye is a genius, but he’s a sinister man,” Ernie Els cracked Thursday after teeing it up in his 21st year at The Players Championship.
Dye’s design can fit first-timers like a straitjacket. It can feel so confining, with so much trouble so close, but 20-year-old Jordan Spieth looked pretty comfortable posting a 5-under-par 67 his first time around the course as a pro. A month after he tied for second at the Masters, Spieth is just four shots off the lead here at The Players.
It isn’t that Dye’s design fits Spieth’s eye so well. It’s that Dye’s design fits Spieth’s nerve so well.
“I’ve always said Jordan plays better when he’s under some stress,” said Michael Greller, Spieth’s caddie.
That’s perfect, because the pressure at The Players Championship doesn’t build the same way it does at other events. Dye built stress through the entire event, from start to finish. Yes, there’s more at the end, but there’s almost no let-up from the start.
Spieth didn’t make a bogey in his first round in The Players.
“I felt comfortable all day,” Spieth said. “Felt comfortable, really, from the first hole.”
That doesn’t mean Spieth didn’t feel the stress that Dye designs into so many shots. He just never showed it. He was asked if he felt some nerves walking from the 16th green to the tee box at the 17th island hole for the first time in this championship.
“Definitely, a little bit,” Spieth said. “It’s such a dinky little hole. It seems so easy. It’s just a little wedge, and we caught it a little down breeze today. It wasn’t too windy, and with that front pin, it’s about as getable as it can get.
“But, yeah, when you walk up to that tee, you definitely know you need to strike it solid, and really commit to a shot. So, I can’t say I wasn’t nervous on that tee box.”
Spieth tugged his tee shot a bit at the 17th, but he found the green and two-putted for par.
“When Jordan comes to a course, he isn’t intimidated by it,” Greller said.
Spieth may not have closed out the Masters the way he wanted chasing Bubba Watson, but he felt good about the way he handled the pressure. After tying for 12th at the RBC Heritage the week after the Masters, Spieth took two weeks off.
“The batteries needed some recharging,” Greller said. “We were kind of running on fumes at Harbour Town.”
Spieth spent some of his time off analyzing what happened at the Masters. He broke down his performance hole by hole with his swing coach, Cameron McCormick. While Spieth showed some frustration on the back nine Sunday at Augusta National, he liked the way he handled the pressure and the emotions that came with it.
“I took a lot of positives,” Spieth said. “That golf course was playing so difficult ... didn’t waste any shots there, just looked back and saw a couple bad bounces. If the ball goes forward on No. 8 like I thought it would, and then carries another yard on 9 and 12, then it’s a completely different golf tournament.
“Looking back, I could take a lot of confidence from that, knowing we made the right decisions. Michael and I handled the emotions well, made the right decisions. I just barely mis-hit one here, or I didn’t quite commit to the line by a foot or two. Normally, that doesn’t hurt you, but at Augusta it can.”
“Very impressive, very mature,’ McDowell said.
McDowell was especially impressed with Spieth’s iron play, his wedge play and putting. He said Spieth’s long game isn’t as highly developed yet.
“It’s homemade, it’s his own,” McDowell said. “It’s just a matter of time. The long game is the easy part.”
Spieth made his second nine look easy Thursday. After starting on No. 10, he made the turn at 1 under by holing a 37-foot par save at the 18th.
“That just jump-started the round,” Greller said.
Spieth followed that with birdies at his 10th and 11th holes, adding birdies at his 15th and 16th holes.
“It was fun,” Spieth said of his first round at The Players. “It’s such a cool golf course.”