Spieth practices, thrives under pressure

By Rex HoggardApril 14, 2015, 10:00 pm

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – When Jordan Spieth began his final round Sunday at Augusta National with two birdies, many marveled at the 21-year-old’s fearlessness.

When he charged in a 20 footer for birdie at the 10th to move a half dozen clear of the field, the collective watched in awe at what could only be described as detached abandon.

And when Spieth rifled his 5-iron second shot at the par-5 13th over the tributary to Rae’s Creek to 14 feet, his competitive moxie appeared beyond reproach.

In just his second Masters, Spieth shifted the paradigm that winning a major championship is more often about dealing with nerves than it is a physical test of hitting golf shots, but then his apparent immunity to pressure is no accident.

Since Spieth was 12 years old, his swing coach Cameron McCormick has conditioned the would-be champion to the stress of competition. Put another way: “Combining the physical and physiological stress in training leads to quantum leaps in performance to bridge the step function of transfer.”

That was a tweet McCormick posted on March 3. On Monday, a day after Spieth won the Masters by four strokes, the Australian patiently obliged when he was asked to put that concept in layman’s terms.

“Essentially what that means is it’s really hard to expect a player who practices in a state of little stress that it’s going to be like that on the course,” McCormick told GolfChannel.com. “You want to simulate as much pressure as you can.”

In practical terms, that means making Spieth feel as uncomfortable as possible when the two are working together.

McCormick said he and Spieth always have “consequences” when they practice. Sometimes that involves your run-of-the-mill cash bets, but most of the time it features a symbolic gesture.

It started with McCormick offering Spieth a hat when he was a pre-teen and advanced to Spieth buying a nice dinner for his girlfriend if he fails a particular task.

According to McCormick, the key is to always make sure there are repercussions and that the duo maintains the delicate balance of challenging such a talented player.

“He’s very competitive. It’s always finding that point where he gets very uncomfortable,” said McCormick, who added that he tried to keep himself as busy as possible on Sunday to avoid the Masters telecast. “He’s the kind of guy who expects to do very well. I’ll push him to the point of frustration, and then I can dial it back.”

Through those drills and a stellar amateur career, Spieth forged a relative indifference to the pressures of competition. He still feels nerves, he’s just become extremely adept at dealing with them.

For McCormick, the transformation of Spieth from Masters runner-up last year to 2015 champion was a similar process.

Following last year’s Masters there was pressure, which was largely internal, to claim his second PGA Tour title and a desire to finish what he stated in 2014 when he took a share of the Masters lead into the final round.

Those pressures, however, manifested themselves in counterproductive ways.

“Last year, he put pressure on himself to validate that first win,” McCormick said. “He realized the pressure he was putting on himself was actually working in reverse.”

It was just before the Ryder Cup when Spieth began to square himself with that concept. He and McCormick made a few putting adjustments at the Australian Open in November, and Spieth dusted the field by six shots.

A week later, he cruised to a 10-stroke victory at the Hero World Challenge, and the die was cast for his Masters masterpiece.

“They learned so much about themselves and their teamwork in Australia was transcendent,” McCormick said of Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller.

Still, even those who have seen the ebb and flow of Spieth’s young career up close were equal parts impressed and surprised that he was able to control his emotions so well with so much on the line.

“Any time, no matter how good someone is or no matter how well you know them, if you told someone a 21-year-old would win the Masters by four strokes in record fashion, you’d have to be surprised,” said Justin Thomas, who first met Spieth when the two were 14 years old at a junior event in Texas.

But after nearly a decade of working with Spieth, McCormick has almost lost the ability to be surprised by anything he does.

Twelve months ago, McCormick talked to Spieth as he was making his way to Hilton Head after his Masters near miss. It was a much different phone call on Monday.

“Last year was more of a way to reflect and regroup as a team,” McCormick recalled. “[Monday’s] call is more looking back on what he’s accomplished. It will be hard to keep my tears back.”

Spieth may have mastered his emotions on the golf course, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy the moment away from the fairways.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”

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Reed's major record now a highlight, not hindrance

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 2:46 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – The narrative surrounding Patrick Reed used to be that he could play well in the Ryder Cup but not the majors.

So much for that.

Reed didn’t record a top-10 in his first 15 starts in a major, but he took the next step in his career by tying for second at the 2017 PGA Championship. He followed that up with a breakthrough victory at the Masters, then finished fourth at the U.S. Open after a closing 68.

He’s the only player with three consecutive top-4s in the majors.

What’s the difference now?

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“The biggest thing is I treat them like they’re normal events,” he said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I’ve always gone into majors and put too much pressure on myself, having to go play well, having to do this or that. Now I go in there and try to play golf and keep in the mindset of, Hey, it’s just another day on the golf course. Let’s just go play.

“I’ve been able to stay in that mindset the past three, and I’ve played pretty well in all three of them.”

Reed’s record in the year’s third major has been hit or miss – a pair of top-20s and two missed cuts – but he says he’s a better links player now than when he began his career. It took the native Texan a while to embrace the creativity required here and also to comprehend the absurd distances he can hit the ball with the proper wind, conditions and bounce.

“I’m sort of accepting it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with doing it. It’s come a little bit easier, especially down the stretch in tournament play.”