Shaping a superstar
Jordan Spieth returns to Austin this week, where he grew as a golfer and led the University of Texas to a national title
March 22, 2016
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Jordan Spieth returns to Austin this week, where he grew as a golfer and led the University of Texas to a national title
Jordan Spieth’s driver cracked while he warmed up for his first round of college golf, minutes before he was to tee off in front of a former U.S. Open champion.
“He didn’t panic,” says John Fields, the University of Texas golf coach. “He just kind of laughed about it.”
Texas coaches headed to Old Overton Golf Club’s pro shop in search of a replacement. They handed the new club, a different brand with a similar shaft, to Spieth on the first tee. Among the gallery watching the star freshman’s debut was Jerry Pate, the 1976 U.S. Open champion and namesake of the University of Alabama’s event.
“He pulls that club out on the first tee, never having hit it before,” Fields recalls. “We’re all holding our breath. And he hits it right down the middle with a little cut.
“That tells you a lot about somebody. That tells you they obviously have tremendous confidence in their abilities, but also tremendous feel if they’re going to make a driver work that they’ve never hit before.”
Spieth had plenty of shots down the middle that day, as he shot 65-69 to share the lead. “I just remember thinking, ‘It doesn’t really matter what happens to this guy. He’s going to find a way to get it done,’” says Ryan Murphy, the team’s assistant coach that season.
Finding a way to succeed in spite of setbacks is a trait many great players share.
Spieth displayed it on the first day of his collegiate career and less than two years later when he followed an unsuccessful Q-School attempt by winning the John Deere Classic, becoming the first player since Tiger Woods to qualify for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola after starting the season without status.
Spieth has won six more PGA TOUR titles since, including two majors. He is the reigning FedExCup champion and World No. 1 as he returns to the town where he played his college golf, Austin, Texas, for this week’s World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play Championship.
Spieth spent 1 ½ seasons in Austin, leading the Longhorns to the NCAA title in his freshman season.
A collegiate title may seem insignificant in light of all that Spieth has accomplished, but only if one ignores the context surrounding that 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club.
The University of Texas, which produced Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Justin Leonard, Mark Brooks and many more, was 40 years removed from its last national championship and pressure was mounting on the program. Spieth, born and raised in Dallas – three hours north of Austin – knew what it would mean to help the proud program return to the top.
“It was huge,” Spieth says of the NCAA title, which was won on a walk-off birdie by the team’s South African senior, Dylan Frittelli. “It was the No. 1 priority in going to school there.”
Spieth concedes that he may not have turned pro in December 2012, a decision that was announced on the school’s Longhorn Network, if his team hadn’t won it all. He may have stayed in school to take another shot at the national championship. Winning the NCAA Championship, and his low-amateur performance at the U.S. Open a couple weeks later, gave him the freedom to leave school knowing he had accomplished his goals.
“At the time, (the NCAA Championship) was the most monumental thing he had been a part of. He achieved a national championship for the University of Texas,” Fields said. “It doesn’t get much bigger than that, not in our world.
“I think it just added to his belief that he could achieve incredible things.”
And it was a big relief to Fields, who’d been at the helm in Austin since 1997.
Despite fielding some strong teams, the Longhorns hadn’t finished in the top 10 at an NCAA Championship since 2004. Even worse, rival Texas A&M won the national title in 2009, the year college golf's biggest event switched to a match-play format.
Spieth says his former coach called the championship a “120-pound monkey off his back,” a joke with a double meaning, referring also to the weight loss the coach underwent after the biggest victory of his career.
The lessons Spieth learned during his only full season in Austin are typical of a teenager living away from home for the first time. He began to learn some of the skills that are so important now that he’s the world No. 1.
“It taught (me), more than anything, time management on and off the golf course. You’re now on your own,” he says. “I had to learn how to be disciplined and work hard in everything I did. That’s what I love to do. I’m a passionate person, … so whether it’s in the classroom or it’s on the course, it kind of opened me up to learn how to do it my way.”
His major, communications, and abundant attention from the school’s Longhorn Network helped him hone the media skills that have contributed to his popularity as a professional. And the golf team’s competitive roster gave him constant competition that helped him improve.
Spieth’s time at Texas served like an incubator, a safe place to comfortably continue his progression toward professional golf.
“We didn’t create somebody,” says Texas assistant coach Jean-Paul Hebert, who was a volunteer assistant that season. “I don’t think he turned into a great golfer during his time here or became a new man. Coach Fields allowed him, through our program, to strengthen what he already had.”
Spieth established an impressive resume before arriving on campus. He won two U.S. Junior Amateur titles (2009, ’11); Woods, who won the tournament three consecutive years (1991-93), is the only other player to win the Junior more than once. Spieth’s first U.S. Junior victory, at Trump National Bedminster, earned Fields a $50 bill signed by Donald Trump. The course owner and current presidential candidate asked Fields who would win that week, and the coach selected his future star. Trump sent an autographed donation to the Texas program as a prize for the coach’s prophecy.
Spieth also had contended in his hometown PGA TOUR event, the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship, twice. He represented the United States in the 2011 Walker Cup, amateur golf’s version of the Ryder Cup, before representing his university in competition.
How important was his commitment to Texas? Fields remembers exactly where he was when Spieth called to declare his intentions to wear the burnt orange.
“February 6, 2010. 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Fields recalled. “I was watching a little golf, I was in a nice, relaxing chair. He called me up and he told me, ‘I’m not going to beat around the bush, Coach. I want you to know what I’m thinking. I’m coming to Texas.’ So yeah, I know where I was.”
Expectations were high when Spieth arrived. Murphy calls Spieth “the cherry on top” of what was already a strong squad, one that ranked 13th in the nation the season prior to Spieth’s arrival.
For many college golfers, tossing grass in the air and remembering to pack their rain gear may be the extent of their meteorological analysis. Fields nicknamed Spieth, “The Weatherman,” because of the detailed, hour-by-hour forecasts he’d share in the team’s evening meetings before competition.
“He could tell you, ‘At 8 o’clock it’s going to be like this. At 9 o’clock it’s going to be like this. At 12, the wind is going to change,” says Fields.
Frittelli had another nickname for Spieth. “Superstar.” It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to all the attention around Spieth, but also a nod to his talent.
Frittelli first met Spieth a couple years earlier at the Spirit International Amateur. Spieth was representing the United States, while Frittelli was playing for South Africa. Spieth was just 16 at the time, and his small frame belied the big expectations that were already being placed on him.
“He was a young, little kid. I had heard so much about him, but I didn’t really believe all the hype. I didn’t know what the big deal was,” Frittelli says. The U.S., South African and Italian teams roomed together that week, though, and Frittelli was quickly impressed.
“I noticed basically an aura,” Frittelli recalls. “The kid had so much self-confidence at 16.”
That opinion was furthered when the freshman made the transition to college look easy.
Frittelli was Texas’ top player when Spieth arrived. They also were the top two players in the nation for much of the season, and a friendly rivalry developed that pulled the rest of the team with them. “Jordan lit a fire under that guy,” Murphy said of Frittelli.
The senior and freshman didn’t just compete in golf. The team’s training facility had a Ping-Pong table, and they were the team’s two best at that sport, as well.
Spieth wouldn’t let them leave the table until he won a game, though. “We’d always have to play one more,” Frittelli says. “Once he did beat me, we could go practice.”
There are moments when those closest to Spieth’s college career say they saw glimpses of his promise.
After finishing sixth at the Pate – Spieth entered the final round with the lead but shot 76 – he got off to a poor start at his next event, the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village Golf Club, site of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. He was 4 over after eight holes but played the day’s next 25 holes in 11 under par before making two bogeys. It was the first time they saw of Spieth get on a roll; Fields saw something similar while watching last year’s Masters.
Spieth continued his good play for most of the Nicklaus’ final day. He was 4 under for 15 holes but finished bogey-bogey-double to lose by two to Illinois’ Thomas Pieters. The Longhorns dominated the team competition, but Spieth’s tough finish mellowed the post-round meal as his teammates didn’t know how he’d respond to another title that slipped away. He quickly put the disappointment behind him, allowing the team to enjoy its victory.
“Jordan was angry. He was venting, saying, ‘I can’t believe I finished that way,’” Fields recalls. “He vented for about a minute and then looked at everyone and said, ‘OK, I’m done venting. Congratulations everybody.’
“He loves to win, but he also loves for the team to win. He loves team competition. He’s a back-slapper. The enthusiasm and energy and desire that he has really flows into a team environment.”
Spieth’s lost opportunities at his first two events set the stage for the finest performance of his college career. It was a foreshadowing of Spieth’s pro career, in which his historic 2015 season was preceded by a frustrating year defined by missed opportunities, including at the Masters and THE PLAYERS.
A frustrated Spieth displayed his full talent at the season’s third event, the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, one of the most prestigious events in college golf. In the process, he answered the challenge from Chuck Cook, who’s instructed several PGA TOUR players over the year and teaches at the University of Texas Golf Club.
“Chuck doesn’t teach Jordan, but he was giving him the needle and saying, ‘That’s two times you’ve had the lead. Can’t you close?’ Fields recalls. “Then we played at Isleworth and Jordan won by eight shots, and he couldn’t wait to get back and tell him, ‘How about that, Chuck?’ Jordan doesn’t like being challenged, I can tell you that.”
Spieth shot 65-73-67 to beat Frittelli by eight shots. Future PGA TOUR players Justin Thomas of Alabama and Patrick Rodgers of Stanford were the next two names on the leaderboard, at 2 under and even par, respectively.
Murphy called Spieth’s first-round 65 the best round of college golf he’d witnessed. “It was just flawless,” Murphy remembers. “It was a professional round of golf. … That golf course, for most people, is very challenging.
“He made it look really easy.”
Isleworth was the final event of Texas’ fall season. Spieth tied for first in the team’s first tournament of the spring season, the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii, but lost a playoff to USC’s Jeffrey Kang. The Amer Ari also was Texas’ fourth consecutive team title; the Longhorns were undefeated with Spieth in the lineup.
Spieth missed the team’s next tournament, in Puerto Rico, to play the PGA TOUR’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, which would host the NCAA Championship in a few months.
Murphy caddied for Spieth, and used the opportunity to learn the classic course as well as possible. When not looping for Spieth, he’d walk the grounds and watch other players play the course. He learned that everything breaks toward the green of the par-3 sixth, which features a bunker in the middle of the putting surface.
“I really felt like (Riviera) was going to be a great match for us,” Murphy said. “That, in my mind, is a left-to-right golf course. Jordan hits it pretty straight, but the other four guys hit it left-to-right off the tee. I thought, ‘This is going to fit us like a glove.’”
Spieth missed two tournaments in the spring to play TOUR events. The coaches encouraged Spieth to go, knowing that the experience was valuable to his development. Spieth missed the cut at Riviera by two shots, then finished T41 at the Valero Texas Open. He got on the leaderboard with a hot start to his third round, but struggled down the stretch. Still, making the cut without his best stuff proved to him that he could compete on TOUR.
“He said, ‘Murph, I just finished (41st) and I don’t feel like I played very good. I can compete out here. I can play with these guys, there’s just no doubt in my mind,’” Murphy said. “I share that story because that’s obviously where you want to get. He had supreme confidence in his abilities. You have to believe in yourself.”
In between those two TOUR starts, Spieth picked up another win at the Texas’ home event, the Morris Williams Intercollegiate. He needed birdie at the last hole to tie two of his teammates, who’d already completed their rounds. His approach shot on the long par-4 18th ended up on an upslope behind the green. He chipped to share the title.
“That reminded me of a lot of great players who have won majors because he sized that (shot) up, he had to make it, and he did,” Fields said.
Three Texas players – Spieth, Frittelli and Julio Vegas, the younger brother of PGA TOUR winner Jhonattan – tied for first. Fields elected not to have a sudden-death playoff for the same reason former Texas coach George Hannon elected for Crenshaw and Kite to share the 1972 NCAA individual title. Two, or three, champions are better than one.
That would end up being Spieth’s final title of the season. He finished fifth in three consecutive events, including the Big 12 Championship, where Texas suffered a tough loss. Frittelli made a double-bogey on 16 and a triple-bogey on the final hole to lose the team and individual titles. It may have helped the reach their ultimate goal, though.
“There’s a chance if we win that conference championship that maybe we don’t win nationals,” Murphy said. “That got their attention. In my opinion, it made them a little bit more focused.”
Texas won seven tournaments before the NCAA Championship, but was runner-up in its three starts entering the most important event of the year.
No problem. Who better to deliver a motivational speech than Crenshaw?
Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion, was captain of the 1999 Ryder Cup team that authored an improbable comeback from a 10-6 deficit at The Country Club. On the eve of the final day, Crenshaw prophetically declared, “I have a good feeling about this.”
He delivered a similar message in a 30-minute address to the Longhorns before they departed for its final tournament of the season.
Fifty-four holes of stroke play at Riviera would determine the individual champion and the eight teams that would advance to match play. The Longhorns had never made it to college golf’s Elite Eight, where teams faced off in five individual matches; the team that won three of the five would advance.
Texas was in sixth place after the first round; Spieth shot 73 as all five Texas players shot over par. The second round went worse. Spieth, who entered the tournament as college golf’s top-ranked player, shot 79, a round that effectively ended his player-of-the year candidacy. “Everything went wrong,” Spieth said after the round. The Longhorns dropped to 13th, but only one shot outside the cut line, with one round remaining.
Things would’ve been worse if not for a hole-in-one by Toni Hakula. Frittelli finished birdie-eagle, holing an 8-iron on Riviera’s difficult finishing hole.
“When you’ve coached as long as I have, when you see something kind of monumental like that, it’s almost like an omen that something good is going to happen,” Fields said.
It did. The Longhorns shot even-par 284, the low score of the day, to finish third and advanced to match play. Spieth shot 69, but he finished 54th in the individual race after shooting 73-79 in the first two rounds.
His fellow freshman, Alabama’s Justin Thomas, tied for seventh in the individual standings to clinch the player of the year award. Pieters won the individual title (Thomas and Pieters also are in the Dell Match Play field).
Texas swept its first round match against the University of Washington. The Longhorns beat the University of Oregon in the second round, setting up a match with Alabama, the nation’s No. 2 team. It was the first time the nation’s top two teams met in the final match.
Spieth faced Thomas, his longtime friend. Alabama took a 2-0 lead after Bobby Wyatt chipped in for birdie on 18 to win his match. Spieth holed out for eagle on Riviera’s par-4 15th en route to a win over Thomas and Texas’ Cody Gribble won his match. The score was tied 2-2.
That set the stage for Frittelli, who was facing Alabama’s Cory Whitsett. Frittelli had 8-iron into Riviera’s 18th green, hitting it to 30 feet. All eyes were on the 18th green. Frittelli could clinch the title with that birdie putt, and he yelled as the ball rammed into the back of the hole to give Texas its title.
The Texas team, led by Spieth and Kramer Hickok, rushed the green and enveloped Frittelli.
“It meant everything. We had been through a lot,” Fields said. “(Winning) re-established the excellence of Texas golf.”
|SPIETH'S FRESHMAN SEASON|
|Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate||T6||65-69-76||Win|
|Jack Nicklaus Invitational||T2||73-66-72||Win|
|Isleworth Collegiate Invitational||Win||65-73-67||Win|
|Amer Ari Invitational||2nd*||69-69-67||Win|
|Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters||T27||76-75-73||Sixth|
|Morris Williams Intercollegiate||Win (3-way tie)||70-69-69||Win|
|Augusta State Invitational||5th||72-68-66||Win|
|Big 12 Championship||5th||74-69-75-71||2nd|
|* - lost playoff|
The team flew home in a private jet. Spieth was up early the next morning to play in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Houston, about 150 miles from Austin. The qualifier was 36 holes in one day, and Spieth was able to summon enough strength to qualify for the tournament (he got in as an alternate).
Spieth wasn’t the star amateur for most of the 2012 U.S. Open. Beau Hossler, the California teen who held the lead late Friday afternoon, stole the spotlight (Hossler is now playing for Texas, and the No. 1 player in college golf). It was Spieth who earned low-amateur honors, though, after shooting 1 under par over the final two rounds. Sharing the trophy presentation with winner Webb Simpson accomplished another goal Spieth wanted to achieve before turning pro.
The U.S. Amateur might have been Spieth’s final event before turning pro, but he lost in the first round to Pieters. Feeling he needed some more time in Austin to prepare for pro golf, Spieth called Fields and asked if he could return to school for another semester. Of course he could.
He attended school while also playing Q-School (Spieth was exempt into the second stage after making the U.S. Open cut). He didn’t advance to the final stage, and didn’t have status on either the PGA TOUR or Web.com Tour, but he knew it was time to turn pro.
Murphy remembers watching the 2012 Ryder Cup with Spieth while he was at school for that final semester. The U.S. lost a 10-6 lead on the final day at Medinah, a reversal of Crenshaw’s team.
“When it was done, he stood up and he goes, ‘Murph, I’m going to be on the next Ryder Cup team,’” Murphy said. “I wasn’t really sure what to think. There was a lot of conviction in that voice. ... He was definitely serious when he said it.”
And he was correct. Spieth turned pro a couple months later, ending his successful stint in Austin.