SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – As Jordan Spieth marched toward the 18th green Friday at Whistling Straits, he expected his ball to be sitting pretty, in the flat of the bunker.
From previous conversations with local caddies here, Spieth learned that there was more sand in the bunkers on 18 than any of the other 1,000-plus on the course, but because he hit hybrid into the green he wasn’t anticipating a plugged lie. It turned out to be even worse – his ball was nestled atop soft sand against the craggy back lip.
“This is an impossible spot,” he groaned.
By now, we know better than that.
“There was a little bit of hyperbole there,” caddie Michael Greller said later, breaking into a grin, “because that way he can feel that much better when he hits a great shot. When he says it’s impossible, that usually means it’s really tough, not necessarily impossible.”
And so, yes, this one was tough, really tough, so tough that Spieth thought about slashing out 10 feet right of the flag just so he could have an unobstructed backswing. His swing had to be straight up and down, and there was no margin for error.
Catch it fat, and he’d be stuck with another bunker shot.
Catch it thin, and he’d looking at double bogey. Or worse.
Spieth chose the brave option, lining up to the right and cutting across the ball.
“You could just hear the perfect sound of a bunker shot,” Greller said.
“I struck it absolutely perfectly,” Spieth said.
His ball landed on the green, hopped, checked and turned right, as if riding down an off-ramp. Perfect pace, straight into the cup.
Spieth said that he would have been a “very, very happy guy” just to walk off with a 4. How about a birdie-3, a two-shot swing with one shot?
“The best bunker shot I’ve ever seen him hit,” Greller said.
It was another highlight-reel shot in a year (and career) full of them, and it was a much-needed spark that propelled Spieth to three more birdies and a 5-under 67 that gave him a realistic shot at a third major this year. At 6-under 138, he’s only one shot off the clubhouse lead at this PGA Championship.
When the ball dropped into the cup, Greller smiled and held up two fingers – the number of hole-outs this week, after Spieth chipped in for birdie on the 12th hole Thursday.
Of course, Spieth’s right-hand man would need four hands to count the number of drained chips, pitches and iron shots this season. The two hole-outs this week bumped the world No. 2’s total to 16, which puts him two back of the PGA Tour lead.
More than the quantity, though, it’s the quality of the hole-outs that makes Greller shake his head. They always seem to come when Spieth needs them most, when the moment is the biggest, when he needs to turn the momentum.
He’s been demoralizing his opponents for years. The only difference now is that his heroics are televised.
Start with the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera. In a tight singles match against Alabama’s Justin Thomas – heard of him? – Spieth holed a long approach shot on the 15th hole en route to a crucial victory that lifted Texas to its first national title in 40 years.
“I’ve seen it so many times, nothing really surprises me,” Longhorns coach John Fields said at the time. “He has that intangible to hit an amazing shot at the right time.”
Then there was the 2013 Puerto Rico Open. Losing ground during the birdie-fest, Spieth aced the 11th hole during the third round and wound up finishing in a tie for second, a crucial result for a player with no status on any major tour.
That finish got him into the next week’s tournament, in Tampa. Needing a birdie on one of the last two holes at Innisbrook to earn special temporary membership – and allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season – Spieth’s shot on 17 ended up short and right of the green, leaving him a tricky shot to a back-right pin. From a gnarly lie, he had only one option: a high, soft, flop shot. He jarred it.
That status paved the way for other starts that season, including the John Deere Classic, where he one-hopped a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff, which he eventually won.
And that victory got him into the 2014 Masters, where in the final round he holed a greenside bunker shot on the difficult fourth hole to grab a two-shot lead. He slipped into the green jacket a year later.
According to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, Spieth had 15 hole-outs in 2013, 12 in ’14 and now has 16 this season … with four-and-a-half events to go.
Keep in mind the Tour average is six hole-outs per season.
“Good lies, I guess,” Spieth smirked. “The pins seem to be soft when I hit chip shots sometimes.”
Greller had a more reasonable explanation for how his boss is able to summon short-game magic at the most opportune times: “He’s one of the best short-game players in the world. He’s always had great touch, even when I first met him. He has great control of the face, and he’s able to look at lies and understand how it’s going to come out. That’s him being very cerebral and smart – that’s his high golf IQ. He’s able to assess the situation.”
Spieth’s two chip-ins this week could play a pivotal role come Sunday.
He had made 10 consecutive pars and was coming off a sloppy bogey on 11 Thursday when Greller stepped in and delivered a pep talk.
Spieth’s third shot had come to rest on the back of the 12th green, and he couldn’t get a drop with a sprinkler head between him and the cup. He chose a 52-degree wedge, bumped his ball onto the green and banked it off the stick. A few hours later, he signed for another under-par round in a major.
“That changed his frame of mind,” Greller said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend, but if that goes 10 feet by and we miss, I think it’s a different spot than we are now.”
After his bunker shot on 18 Friday, Spieth – who began his round on the back nine – made birdie on two of his next three holes and carded a 67, even though he found only 12 greens and the medium-length hitter (285-yard average) struggled to find the proper lines off the tee.
It was a quintessential Spieth round, and afterward he chalked up his good position to smart course management and his sterling short game – of the 12 greens he’s missed, he has gotten up and down all but once (including the two chip-ins) and whiffed just one putt inside 10 feet.
“He’s the prime example of someone whose game is very efficient when he gives himself chances,” said Rory McIlroy, who was grouped with Spieth for the first two rounds here. “Especially today he took them, and then when he got out of position he was able to get it up and down.”
Spieth has such a knack for scoring that he and Greller made a little wager at the start of the season.
Last year, they set the over/under on Spieth’s number of hole-outs at 12. Spieth had 13.
And so this year, the target was set at 13. Anything over that mark, Spieth wins. Loser buys dinner.
He reached 13 last week at Firestone with a most Spiethian birdie: tugged drive into the rough, flier over the green, and then a rammed chip that would have raced 10 feet past.
“Anything from now on is a win,” he boasted afterward. “I've got it.”
Two days later, he won the bet.
“It felt nice,” he said.
They can add two more to the total this week … or is it four?
Greller counts major hole-outs as double, so he figures Spieth actually has 18 this season.
One thing is certain: Next year, he won’t set the bar so low.