Special: Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson on Patience

When I finally went to bed last night at 1 AM, the last interviews from the third round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions had been completed for four and a half hours, well beyond the PGA Tour’s two-hour embargo. But still the transcripts had not been posted on the Internet.

So I went with a stock “who, what, when, where” post which I always use to set up the thing we are most interested in here, “how,” the principles of mastery. But the most credible description of “how” can only come from the players’ own words and to a certain extent from my amplifying, expanding and explaining them from the perspective of a former player.

When I got up this morning, the transcripts had finally been posted sometime during the night or perhaps early this morning and there were some insightful comments in there from both Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, two of the three co-leaders going into today’s final round.

So I thought you would appreciate this embellishment on last night’s post before the final round begins, it is the thing that distinguishes my work for the stock reporting of the other daily journalists. Taken together, last night’s post and this one, it is the substance and quality I attempt to bring to you each day. 

We begin with Jordan Spieth explaining his Achilles heel, waning patience in the third round and how he sustained it through the finish of Sunday’s round:

Third rounds were a struggle last year and it was mainly because of my patience.

So today, even when I didn’t play the easy holes as well as I wanted to, I felt like I stayed patient and then got a good birdie on 17 there, and a closing save [on 18].  I had a nice turn around on 8 after a bogey to birdie that hole.  I think that was kind of the spark of the day for me on a really difficult par 3, birdie 8 and 9 to get back on track and just grabbed a couple more.

And then he was a little more specific about where he almost came undone and where and how he managed to hold it together:

Probably [that stretch of] 15, 16, was pretty hard.  Both those holes are very simple holes, I think.  15 I’ve been struggling off that tee shot. Each day I’ve pulled it to make sure I’m not going close to the hazard on the right and it’s leaving me with a difficult second shot each day, awkward lie.

So I did what I could from there to get it to ten feet and had a lip-out. And next hole, I hit lob‑wedge in, hit a great shot and left the putt short.  Just to go through those two easy holes and know that competitors are birdieing them, that’s in the past where I may have kind of let it get to me a little more.

But I got to 17 tee box and thankfully that view [of the ocean] kind of calmed me down a little bit and I was able to snag a birdie there.

So for Monday’s finish, with all this soaring talent within three strokes of him, does this become a race and how does this notion of patience play itself out, especially when he’s never slept on a 54-hole lead?

Yeah, it is, Webb and Dustin, a lot of experience, and Dustin, the winner here last year, knows the course extremely well.  It’s going to be a battle.  I’m going to have to make some birdies tomorrow but again it’s going to come down to a lot of patience.

This is a new position for me.  I’ve never slept on a 54-hole lead.  I’m excited about it and it’s going to be a fun time tomorrow to get to play with Webb I think for the third time again this week.  We were able to feed off each other in the first round and yesterday, and hopefully can do it tomorrow.

Somewhere along the line, he picked up the skill of not being overwhelmed by the fact that he’s playing with the creme de la creme of professional golf. Here he distinguishes the difference between that kind of pressure and the pressure of just wanting to do well:

Never really wanted to think that way.  I mean, you don’t want to.  It makes it almost a bigger-than-life experience when truly we’re just playing golf.  So I don’t know if there’s a time frame but I’ve now been playing with these guys week in and week out, fought for five months-ish, so that’s a lot of events.

And I’ve been able to compete with them, so kind of feel like this is where I want to be, this is what it’s all about to feel the pressure of Sunday at a PGA event.  So it will be cool playing Kapalua on Monday I guess.

So while he pays attention to what’s going on around him, he’s not really a leaderboard watcher. He’s learned that that limits his ambition for the day. So his strategy is to win by as large a margin as he can and it’s either good enough or it’s not:

I’m going to try not to watch the leaderboard I think.  Fortunately Webb is going to be with me so I’ll know what he’s doing, but it’s not a match‑play experience.  It’s not like I’m looking at what the guys next to me are doing and I’m trying to grind to beat them on the hole.

I’ll have a game plan, I’m not sure what it is yet going in.  Once I get on the first tee — just kind of my mental attitude going into it.  And I need to go work on my putting a little now so I can gain some confidence back.  So once that happens, I’ll pick a game plan and be ready to go.

In the past, I think the biggest key when I was in this position, whether it was college, amateur, junior golf, was not to try and win by one; it was to try to get out there, get way ahead and you almost have the mind‑set that you want to go out there and try to win by five shots.  That’s the only way that I think you can break open and really make some birdies.  I think that’s the right mind-set to have.

As for Dustin Johnson, as he’s gotten older [now 29] he’s discovered that patience was the hardest thing for him to learn:

Sometimes with me, especially out here, it’s just patience and maybe not really patience but staying focused and I know when I’ve played my best, I’m really focused and I’m just really patient.

My routine is the same, and a lot of times out here, or what I’ve learned or I’ve looked back on when I haven’t played very well, I get out of my routine, I’m not really focused on the shots I’m hitting and I’m not really just thinking that well.

On the 7th hole, he blew it over the green. His reaction was an example of how he was able to maintain his patience and focus by simply accepting that he hit a good shot that didn’t work out:

Yeah, on 7, I didn’t do anything wrong there.  I actually hit a good shot, I just hit it over the green.  I actually had one more club — I had a 5-iron and then when I saw Zach’s go a little bit over, I’m like, well, maybe [the wind] is not hurting as much, so I went back to a 6-iron and I still hit it over the green.  It’s just one of those things, I hit it good and it went right through the wind.

And in his win in the Fall at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, he had another instance of where he could have phoned it in but didn’t:

It’s the same thing kind of if you go back to like the HSBC where I 3-putted the first hole, missed a little short one, and then two, I drove it right down the middle, kind of pushed a 6-iron into a par 5, end up making five, which was bad.

So I got off to kind of a shaky start and Ian [Poulter] and Graeme [McDowell], they birdie the first two holes and birdie three, so I think a couple years ago, that would have really rattled me.

But it didn’t and I just kept telling myself, just play your game, keep going through your routines.  I’m playing good, I’m putting good, so just keep at it and see what happens.  You know, it ended up working out where I played really well from about four on in to the house [5 birdies and an eagle for a 66 and a 3-shot win over Poulter].

So as you watch the final round today and think you’re noticing the classic Tour player stoicism on their faces, it’s not that. When they’re on, it’s just relentless patience that allows them to stay focused and in the moment.

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