DUBLIN, Ohio – Last time Jordan Spieth wandered onto the property at Muirfield Village, Sammy the Squirrel was in the early moments of his 15 minutes of fame and the 20-year-old was still a curiosity with most fans – if not a few of his Presidents Cup teammates.
Spieth had solidified himself as a bona fide phenom with his victory at the John Deere Classic and caught the attention of U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples with two more runner-up finishes, including his near miss at the Tour Championship.
Couples made Spieth one of his captain’s picks for the matches at Jack’s Place. He had to.
“He’s going to be on Ryder Cup teams and Presidents Cups teams forever,” Couples said at the time.
But there was still a healthy amount of uncertainty as the matches approached. Spieth had started the year without any status, played a total of four majors in his life and Couples knew the pressures of playing for one’s country could be debilitating even for the most seasoned player.
So Couples paired Spieth with veteran Steve Stricker in team golf’s version of an apprenticeship, not that the 20-something seemed to need much mentoring.
Spieth aced the par-3 12th during a practice round, won his first match, 1 up, over the International side’s best pairing on paper in Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge and ended an eventful week with a 2-2-0 record.
In a quintessential Couples’ move, he texted Stricker a few weeks before the matches to let him know he’d be playing the role of mentor at Muirfield Village.
“He didn’t say much, you know Freddie,” said Stricker, who first played with Spieth at the Tour Championship just weeks before the matches. “Freddie being Freddie, he told us to have fun and go out and enjoy it.”
For all his accolades and accomplishments, the rookie started his week in Ohio playing like one. He was nervous, excited, anxious and not entirely comfortable.
Even when the two arrived at the first tee on Thursday there was tension that had been absent for the vast majority of his young career.
“To say the least he was nervous starting out,” Stricker said. “He needed some mentoring the first couple of holes. I talked to him going down No. 4. He was out of sorts. I was like, ‘Hey, it’s all right. We’ve all been here and I’m here for you.’”
Tour memories are not something Spieth has in abundance. He has a total of 47 starts in the major leagues, but Muirfield Village is the exception to that history. With a college tournament in 2012, the Presidents Cup and last year’s Memorial, he’s played at Jack’s Place three times under vastly different conditions and predictably his mind raced back to last fall’s matches on Tuesday.
“It was cool to drive in today to see the (18th) green and remember the celebration and just the amazing times that we had throughout that week, which is one of the most incredible weeks of my life,” he reminisced on Tuesday.
But then a lack of institutional knowledge hasn’t exactly been the kid’s Achilles heel the past 18 months.
Last month at Augusta National, which has been particularly tough on first-timers, Spieth tied for second place following a closing 72; and took a share of the lead into the final day at his first Players Championship before another Sunday swoon.
Nor are all of Spieth’s Muirfiled Village memories to be savored. He and Stricker lost a close four-ball match to Jason Day and Graham DeLaet and the Canadian beat him again in Sunday’s singles action, 1 up.
“Individually it left a little bit of a tough taste in my mouth,” Spieth said. “We got off to a 2-0 start with (Stricker), and then I didn’t play my best golf those last couple of rounds. I’d like to get (DeLaet) in a couple of years if I can again.”
A more immediate redemption loomed on Tuesday as Spieth made his way across Muirfield Village’s practice tee and walked past Tom Watson, the captain for this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team.
The captain, in town to scout potential team members, stopped and watched Spieth, who is fourth on the points list, hit golf balls for a few moments with particular interest and Couples’ words from last fall seemed to linger in the warm air – “He’s going to be on Ryder Cup teams and Presidents Cups teams forever.”