CHARLOTTE — There is a point in any great athlete’s career when he’s suddenly in the club — famous to even the famous.
Jordan Spieth’s moment came last month. In Cabo San Lucas. Hanging, and posing for pictures with Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Russell Wilson and Dwight Freeney. Spotlights bouncing off each other’s foreheads.
That velvet-ropes moment was recalled by caddie Michael Greller at the British Open two weeks ago when he was trying to resuscitate his dragging boss. “Do you remember that group you were with in Cabo last week? You belong in that group,” he told Spieth, who later attributed the pep talk to his improbable comeback and the third major championship of his career.
Then came Thursday: more evidence of Spieth’s place on the sports landscape. He was grouped in the opening round of the PGA Championship with Masters champion Sergio Garcia and U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka. He also was followed inside the ropes by Phelps, who strangely has evolved into a sort of competitive spirit guide for the young golfer.
“He’s become a good friend and even a mentor,” Spieth said later Thursday, standing outside the clubhouse after his round. “It’s pretty awesome to have a mentor like that. He was messing with (Greller), so he kept it light.”
Spieth didn’t want to go to deep into how Phelps is helping him, saying, “We’ve had dinner. We’ve talked through a lot of things. Just stuff that I’d probably rather just keep to myself. A lot about mental approach and preparation.”
Spieth struggled on the greens at Quail Hollow. But he seemed to hold it together better than Garcia. He birdied two of his last three holes, amending for some earlier make-able putts that “burned the edges” of the cups, and finished his round at 1 over par. In a week where the winner may shoot single digits, that’s fine. (Thorbjorn Olsesen and Kevin Kisner lead at 4 under.)
Garcia, who redefined himself in Augusta, but has only one top-10 finish (in China) in five tournaments since, was all over the course. He played 16-17-18 at 5 over – water and double-bogeys on 16 and 18, three-putt on 17 — and finished his round at 3 over.
After their respective rounds, Spieth came out to address the media. Garcia left the course without speaking, maybe in search of serenity. Or a mentor.
There should be a lot of pressure on Spieth this week. He’s trying to make history as golf’s only sixth career grand-slam winner in the Masters era –- Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen are in that club – and the youngest to do so (Woods was 24 years, 7 months; Spieth turned 24 two weeks ago).
But the moment hasn’t overwhelmed him. He won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 at the age of 22, and it set a ridiculously high bar for somebody so young in any sport, let alone golf. He acknowledges he didn’t handle it well. The collapse at the 2016 Masters, in which he blew a five-shot lead on the back nine and dropped two in the water for a quadruple bogey on No. 12, made almost as much news as the win the year before.
Great ones can go in either direction after moments like that.
“I’ve already been though the worst thing that can happen to me,” Spieth said the other day, dismissing the idea of excessive pressure this week or in any major tournament.
“I haven’t felt any comparisons (to 2015). I think once you get into where you play four, five years on Tour, you can start to see trends. You start to kind of expect what your capabilities are. You start to see ups and downs. You start to recognize what you should expect to be a good year.”
2017: a good year. Three wins, seven top-10s, nearly $7 million in earnings in 18 events and a No. 2 world ranking (behind Dustin Johnson).
Like most in the PGA field, Spieth addressed the difficult putting conditions at Quail Hollow. Some of the holes, particularly on the shortened 184-yard fourth hole, have undulating greens so challenging that they might as well be red artificial turf with a clown’s mouth for the hole.
Spieth, starting on the back nine, played his first 15 holes at 4 over. But his ability to compartmentalize and move on from failure enabled him to close with two birdies on Nos. 7 and 8.
“I don’t think I was free-rolling,” he said. “When I had the chances that I had, and I just couldn’t get the ball to go in on the greens, that is when I get the most frustrated.”
Koepka said Spieth played just “OK.”
But he was impressed.
“He’s a grinder. It’s impressive to watch him play. He picks apart a golf course really, really well. I mean, he’s, what, 24? Is that his age. At that age, that’s a lot of maturity. You know, it’s fun to see.”
Spieth attributed the birdies to “easy holes,” and not being dragged back to the early part of his round.
“If I were to finish par, par, par, I would have thrown myself out of the tournament,” he said. “If I was focused on my score, it might have been a different story. I was focused on what we had left.”
Thinking like that gets you in the club.
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