Jordan Spieth: A Lucky, Young, Great Winner

Jordan Spieth won the John Deere Classic Sunday in an exhausting, 5-hole playoff with defending champion, Zach Johnson, looking for his 10th victory, and Canadian, David Hearn, looking for his first. On the TPC Deere Run, which had been compliantly bending to the will of the players for the first three days, you would have expected that a birdie fest would have been necessary to survive that playoff. But all it took was five straight pars.

Spieth got into the playoff because of a lucky, greenside bunker shot he holed at the 18th:

The shot on 18 was the luckiest shot I’ve ever hit in my life.  It was going a good six, seven feet past, which I guess I had that putt in the playoffs, so maybe it would have gone in.  But the fact that it bounced right and hit the pin and dropped down in the cup, you know, it’s just extremely fortunate.  About as lucky as it was getting the break on 18 where I ended up winning there.

I don’t know what I did to deserve those breaks.  I said my prayers, but it worked.

The break on 18 that he refers to was his final drive that ended up in the right rough with a hole through the trees straight to the pin 175 yards away. And he took full advantage of it by punching a 7-iron than ran up on the green and just barely off the back. Johnson was behind a big tree, Hearns hit a tree that knocked the ball down in the rough much further back. Both made bogey to Spieth’s winning par. But it wasn’t like he didn’t work for it:

The punch‑out, I’m just happy I went back to the bag and changed clubs.  I was going to hit an 8‑iron and try to cut it around the tree off the water, and went back to the bag and grabbed a 7‑iron out and said we’re just going to hit a little punch under it once those guys were in a little bit of trouble.  It was the play.  It was the smartest play.  And I guarantee you, a few weeks ago, I don’t do that.

A couple weeks ago I would have said, let’s be aggressive and hit the 8.  And I just kind of sat back and for whatever reason just stepped off of it and said, let’s think about this for a second.  I like this little punch 7, keep it under the tree. I just got over the ball, and it just felt above my feet.  I just felt “left” [towards the pond] coming into play.  Just whatever the feeling was, and just backed off and took the 7 out.  Fortunate that it held up on the back of the green there.

For as sanguine as five straight pars may seem, in a world where birdies were raining down all day long, the whole playoff was nerve wracking:

Yeah, if I wasn’t balding before, I’m definitely after the playoff.  To tell you the truth, the first couple playoff holes were the worst as far as emotions and pressure.  But once the 20‑footer turns into a 50‑footer, you don’t know how hard to hit the ball.  Your hands want to smack the ball, and you have to somehow control them.  Once I got to 16 and back to 17 even on the six‑, seven‑footer, eight‑footer I had for par on the par‑5, I didn’t feel any nerves.  It was weird.  They came back up when I had to putt to win.  But I just felt more comfortable hanging in there as the playoff holes went by.  I was dodging bullets and just felt a little confidence.

Keep in mind that this is coming from a 19-year-old. Did I forget to mention that? Yeah, at 19 years, 11 months and 18 days, Spieth became the youngest player to win a PGA Tour event since Johnny McDermott won the 1911 U.S. Open, edging Spieth by a little over a month.

And so what had been a lark in his college days as a First Team All-American in his freshman year at the University of Texas, a lark he looked back on as tournament unfolded, became an almost overwhelming situation even with 19-year-old nerves:

It’s one thing, you want to approach it mentally.  You want it on your mind telling yourself to have the confidence that you do in a college event when you’ve won before.  You want to have past success in your head, and that’s what I tried to do.  At the same time, it’s a little hard to keep it out of your head when you have to putt to win the tournament.

I’ve never had to putt to win the tournament before the first playoff hole, the 30‑footer, and that was just a different feeling.  It’s beyond nerves.  Even the two‑footer to tap in, I didn’t know if I’d get my putter to the ball.  So I looked at the hole, looked at the front of the cup, decided to let my hands do it and watched it go in.  But, yeah, you want to approach it where you’ve had success in the past.  Then at some point you have to work on your breathing.

One of the things that emboldened him in these circumstances is that he finally got to a place where he had nothing to lose. He has been playing all year long as a Special Temporary Member. This allowed him to accept sponsor exemptions and he’s made the most of it. He had made $1.2 million for the year to date, but that only locked up his card for next year.

He needed to win a tournament to retroactively be awarded the FedExCup points he would have earned as a member and to get into the year-end playoffs. Fortunately, he won the one tournament that also got him into this week’s British Open. As I write this, Spieth is with 26 other players, somewhere over the Atlantic on the John Deere charter flight to Muirfield in Scotland. His go-for-broke freedom put him there:

When you don’t have anything to lose and you want to strive for everything that comes with [a win], I kind of fire away.  I mean, I think that being in the position I was in versus if I was a member of the Tour already and I was fighting for my card, fighting for every dollar, it would have made a little bit of a difference.

But the fact that there really wasn’t anything to lose, if I end up on the bunker shot, if I end up going in the water on my second shot, if I pull it and it goes in the water and I get 8th place, the difference in 8th and 3rd doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.  You know, I had to kind of go for broke, and it paid off.

The only slight problem that he’s going to have is that when he packed three weeks ago, getting into the Open was such a long shot all he packed was short-sleeved shirts. If you watched any of the Scottish Open that Phil Mickelson won in a one-hole playoff Sunday, you know that it was windy and chilly in Scotland and short sleeves won’t get it done.

But it’s a nice problem to have.

As a rare postscript, David Feherty got off a really good line in the middle of the broadcast when one of the contending players was having a little trouble.

Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

He was paraphrasing the late Randy Pausch in his dying, inspirational, The Last Lecture:

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

It’s a very constructive way to think about failure.

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