It’s hard to fathom now, but it wasn’t that long ago that Jordan Spieth traveled halfway around the world with a string of questions trailing behind him.
It was one year ago, in fact, that Spieth headed Down Under for his debut start at the Australian Open. But this wasn’t major champion, world No. 1, all-everything Jordan Spieth.
No, this was full-of-unrealized-potential Spieth: a player clearly on the rise, but one who was also outside the top 10 in the world rankings and 16 months removed from his lone professional win.
Spieth had his chances, notably at the 2014 Masters and Players Championship, but couldn’t hold on. He watched as peers like Patrick Reed racked up multiple victories, and he had a front-row seat for Rory McIlroy’s ascension into the golfing stratosphere.
Then with one stunning close along the Australian sand belt, Spieth took the trophy from McIlroy, put to bed many lingering doubts and launched a 12-month run that has reached significant heights.
Spieth began that final round tied for the lead at The Australian Golf Club, and facing blustery conditions he fired a course-record 63. The score was four shots better than anyone else in the field – eight shots better than crowd favorite Adam Scott – and turned a tight leaderboard into a six-shot romp for the 21-year-old.
“To come into that Sunday and shoot one of the best, if not the best rounds I’ve ever shot in my life, in those conditions, and to win that tournament significantly, it was huge,” Spieth said in August. “That win gave me a winning formula. I was able to just get a massive load off my shoulders.”
That relief was clear as the results piled up – immediately. Spieth flew to Florida the very next week and lapped a world-class field, winning the 18-man Hero World Challenge by 10 shots at Isleworth.
Another win followed in Tampa, and a pair of majors after that. All told, in the 12 months since he left Oz, Spieth has won six times and finished second on four other occasions.
“I think after the Sunday round here, I felt like it was a very special round that was going to do something for me,” Spieth said Tuesday. “No, I didn’t think it would launch the type of year that we’ve had, because each piece needed to come together to get a bit more comfortable in the bigger situations. But I learned how to really close here with my head.”
The snowball effect has seemed more like an avalanche this year, but the premise rings true: Spieth likely doesn’t win the U.S. Open without the confidence derived from his Masters triumph. He may not win the Masters without his victory weeks earlier at the Valspar Championship, and so on.
But it all leads back to Australia, to this stretch of golf far from the PGA Tour where Spieth received the confirmation that he can outlast some of the best in the game.
Of course, he wasn’t the only one to follow this formula. McIlroy’s 2013 season was mired with equipment-related controversy and yielded no trophies until he closed with a similar surge to win this event, denying Scott the Australian Triple Crown in the process.
That victory served as a springboard for McIlroy, who like Spieth went on to win a pair of majors the next year.
“It ended the year for me on a high,” McIlroy said. “It hadn’t been a great season for me. I’d had my struggles, but to win one of my last events was great. It gave me momentum going into 2014.”
As he summited various peaks throughout this past season, Spieth was always cognizant of just what catalyzed his torrid run.
“We had not found the solution as a team, and we found the solution in Australia against a world-class field including the world No. 1 and 2 at the time,” Spieth said after winning the Masters. “I was able to see putts go in. I knew that I could make them under pressure and I knew the strategy mentally, most importantly, to get the job done.”
“I thought of the two events that I played at the end of last year, Australian Open and Tiger’s event, as paramount in what happened this year,” he added at the BMW Championship in September, on his way to the FedEx Cup title. “They were extremely key events that I don’t know if the success that happened this year happens without those two events, I really don’t.
“Mentally they took me to a different level, just learning how to close those two out.”
When it comes to prodigious talent, sometimes all it takes is a spark. Many fans remember Tiger Woods’ romp at the 1997 Masters, but that win was preceded by three other victories in the prior six months.
McIlroy became a major champion at the 2011 U.S. Open, but he first needed to learn how to win in Dubai and Charlotte.
Now Spieth returns to the scene of his own crunch-time tutorial, the course outside Sydney where on one day when he absolutely needed it, his game delivered beyond his wildest expectations.
It’s a response from him that now seems routine, but once was anything but.