DUBLIN, Ohio – Normally it takes fierce independence to win in golf.
You’re out there all alone in the big moments, winning or losing with nobody’s help, save for some advice from your caddie, but he can’t hit any shots. He can’t get the ball in the hole. He can’t make a score for you.
That’s what makes team golf so intriguing.
Teammates do matter, and they can make a score for you.
Just ask Jordan Spieth.
Spieth, the 20-year-old PGA Tour rookie, hit some terrific shots in his first international team competition as a pro, and he hit some awful ones, but he and his partner took turns picking up each other in defeating Brendon De Jonge and Ernie Els, 1 up, in the opening fourball session. They were the last American point to go on the board, the difference in the U.S. taking a lead or tie or even deficit into Friday’s foursomes.
Spieth and Stricker combined to make 11 birdies in the best-ball format.
“Steve was the perfect player to play with,” Spieth said. “It was obvious nerves were affecting me at the start.”
Spieth’s nervousness came out at No. 4, a par 3 where he chunked his tee shot miserably short and dropped his club in dismay.
That’s where Stricker, 46, made a difference. He patted the rookie on the chest and offered up some advice.
“He said, 'I know you got some nerves going, but let’s start playing some golf now,” Spieth said. “He was extremely supportive and helpful in getting me going.”
So was Davis Love III, an assistant captain. With Spieth never having experienced a competition quite like this, captain Fred Couples assigned Love to watch over him. At the fifth hole, Stricker sidled up to Love and asked what he ought to tell the rookie.
“I would just tell him a joke, or get him to relax a little bit,” Love said.
Stricker birdied the first, third and fifth holes to help the Americans go 1 up. Spieth made his first birdie at the sixth, and that’s where he began to find the game that helped him become PGA Tour Rookie of the Year this season.
“It’s always important to get off to a good start, and I knew what kind of nerves Jordan was going to be dealing with,” Stricker said. “I was in a similar spot a long time ago. It’s a tough situation. I thought the pressure was on me to come out and play well and try to make things easy for him, knowing what he was going to be facing.”
Love could see Spieth responding to Stricker.
“It just took him a few holes to kind of calm down,” Love said. “I could even see it in his swing. You could tell he was uncomfortable in the beginning, but, boy, in the middle of the round, he was ready to go.”
Spieth scorched Muirfield Village Golf Club in the middle of his round, making birdies at the 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th holes before his swing got a little shaky in the end again.
At the 17th, Spieth hooked his approach wildly left of the green by a TV tower and ended up making bogey. Holding on to a 1-up lead at the 18th, Spieth hooked his tee shot left into a water hazard. That’s where this team thing kicked in again. Stricker saved par there to save the win. With his ball plugged in the wall of a greenside bunker, Stricker cleverly blasted to a couple feet to halve the hole and win the match.
With De Jonge playing brilliantly, and Els chipping in, this match was in doubt late. De Jonge made eight birdies.
“What a match,” Spieth said. “It was incredible, the vibe out here.”
Spieth said he couldn’t compare the experience to anything else in golf. His teammate knows the feeling.