SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – There are obvious benefits to those practice-round money games: bragging rights, hitting shots that matter, and, yes, a little extra pocket change when things work out, as they did here Tuesday, with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas handing Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler a 1-up defeat.
But for Spieth, the more important work was done Wednesday at Whistling Straits. Throwing down balls in gnarly rough, sizing up runoffs and slashing out of the inconsistent bunkers, he treated his nine-hole practice round like a complex math equation, testing all of the variables, trying to find the best solution.
It was Spieth at his tactical best, and it’s one of the biggest – and most underappreciated – reasons why he has climbed to No. 2 in the world in only his third year as a pro.
“He’s always been really high on the golf IQ spectrum,” said Spieth’s instructor, Cameron McCormick. “I call it tactical intelligence. He takes in information really, really quickly, and he can go from very broad to very narrow and center in on it, whether he’s looking at a yardage book, or whether he’s played the hole only once.”
Indeed, for all of Spieth's myriad gifts – his envy-inducing short game, his magical putter, his relentless attitude – this is arguably his most impressive: He’s proven to be a quick study.
Spieth began the 2013 season with no status on any major tour, playing courses that he had seen only on TV. Rookies typically struggle their first year out as they adjust to life on the road or a full schedule, but not this kid. He shot 13 rounds of 65 or better, won once, posted three runners-up, recorded nine top-10s and 13 top-25s and, perhaps most impressive, missed only five cuts.
How was he able to adapt so quickly?
“I didn’t really have another choice,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t have a job. If you don’t learn quickly how to play golf courses that you haven’t played before, you’re going to be very, very far behind. I don’t know how, other than just realizing that it was live or die."
In preparation for his first Masters, Spieth played Augusta National with McCormick in fall 2013. One of McCormick’s biggest takeaways was that, surprisingly, it didn’t require a tremendous amount of prior knowledge. Sure enough, Spieth shot par or better all four rounds in his debut, shared the 54-hole lead and tied for second. He won the very next year, of course, and tied the tournament scoring record.
TPC Sawgrass is one of the most diabolical layouts on the Tour schedule, a design that usually requires years of trial and error to learn the best angles of attack. Yet in his first start there as a pro, Spieth shared the third-round lead.
Course knowledge can be just as important as form at St. Andrews. Spieth had seen the most famous links in the world only once in person, during a round with some of his Walker Cup teammates in 2011, and then on his home simulator. He arrived for the biggest tournament of his life late on a Monday, played a full practice round, and added 28 more holes over the next two days.
After playing the Wednesday practice round on the Old Course, it became apparent to McCormick that they hadn’t gathered all of the information that they needed. With the shifting winds, they didn’t know the line for the layup to the left of the fairway on the par-5 14th. It was a point of reference that Spieth would need to draw from, so after the round caddie Michael Greller headed back out to the hole and jotted down a few notes.
The next day, with all of the Grand Slam hype swirling around him, Spieth shot 67 in the opening round.
“It’s about paying attention,” said McCormick, who was recently named the PGA National Teacher of the Year. “The player that maybe is complacent and talking to his player partners, the player who maybe is more interested in the social aspect just as much as the exercise of playing a practice round, that player might miss that. And then he might get to that situation and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ You hit a shot with certain unknowns. And when you’re competing and trying to beat the best players in the world, unknowns are bad.”
Which is why Spieth tries hard to eliminate them, running through every possible scenario, even if only for a few seconds. On the fourth green Wednesday, he looked back down the fairway, almost as if there was a thought cloud above his head.
“He was thinking to himself: 'Is this a realistic place that I can miss it? Will it roll up into the rough or will it stay in this collection area?'” McCormick said later.
“That’s telling to the type of tactician that he is, and how he can deduce very quickly what is the likely miss and where do I need to practice from.”
This wasn’t a trait drilled into Spieth by his instructor. Heck, during Spieth’s junior days, McCormick traveled with his pupil to only a few of the big tournaments each year, such as the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur.
“It’s his own intelligence that he’s developed over time, just recognizing that I need to create a competitive advantage,” McCormick said.
Well, Spieth has certainly put that advantage to good use this season. In the first three majors, he is a combined 37 under par – 14 shots better than the next best player, Louis Oosthuizen.
Now comes the PGA, held on another venue where, on paper, he would seem to be at a disadvantage, having never played the course in competition. The last time Whistling Straits hosted a major, in 2010, Spieth was entering his senior year of high school.
He saw the course for the first time a few days before the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, in a 40-mph wind. This week, when he wasn’t taking money off Rickie and Phil, he was playing shots from the edge of the greens, where the bluegrass blends into the fescue and makes chipping difficult.
Said McCormick: “There are mistakes that you can prevent by making sure that you’re observant rather than playing practice rounds where maybe they’re more into the exercise of playing 18 holes than what can do I today that will save me a stroke tomorrow? That’s the attitude Jordan takes. Always has.”
And it’s one that’s proven quite successful.