Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jordan Spieth

One of my early encounters with Jordan Spieth was in an elevator in Columbus, Ohio during the 2013 President’s Cup. He had been chosen as a Captain’s pick by Fred Couples and it was Spieth’s first experience with international team golf competition. I introduced myself and offered some long-term encouragement.

“I just want you to know that all of us at the PGA of America, and in particular, Tom Watson were really pleased to see you get named to this team. Watson really wants you on next year’s Ryder Cup team,” I said.

“Mr. Bishop, that is my main goal for next year- to make that Ryder Cup team,” said Spieth.
Mr. Bishop? Not too many 20-year olds would have even remembered a name after a brief introduction. It was very clear to me during that 30-second encounter that there was something very special about this kid.

I watched him during the week and at times he was clearly nervous and struggled with the magnitude of the moment. He was strategically paired early in that President’s Cup with veteran Steve Stricker. A week after the U.S. won the competition I had a chance to talk with Stricker.

“I really enjoyed playing with Jordan. He is a special talent. It was kind of weird playing with a guy as a partner who is young enough to be my son,” quipped Stricker. “But, hey, Tom Watson is old enough to be his grandpa if Jordan makes the Ryder Cup!”

Spieth did make that 2014 Ryder Cup team and despite all of the scrutiny of Watson’s inability to relate to his younger players that was definitely not the case with Spieth who was 2-2 at Gleneagles. Spieth and his playing partner, Patrick Reed, became stalwarts in the first couple of days at that Ryder Cup.    

Stricker’s observation of Watson being old enough to be Spieth’s grandfather was prophetic in many ways. During that week at Gleneagles, Spieth listened to Watson, sought his counsel and spring boarded it to a successful Ryder Cup debut. It was definitely like watching a grandson proudly glean history and insight from a grandfather.

But that would be Jordan Spieth who is definitely a product of a solid upbringing by his mom and dad, Chris and Shawn. Both parents were athletes in their own right. Chris was a women’s college basketball player at Moravian College while Shawn was a former baseball player at Lehigh. They created a highly grounded family environment for Jordan and his brother, Steven, who starts on the Brown basketball team- as well as 14-year old Ellie, the youngest sibling who has a neurological disorder that has led to autism.

In an ESPN.com story on the Friday of The Masters, Chris Spieth wanted people to know that Ellie has shaped her brother more than any swing coach ever could.
“Jordan wouldn’t be where he’s at today if he didn’t grow up with Ellie. She always thought that her brothers won at everything,” said Chris. “So, there’s no way they were allowed to be down around her. No way. Jordan realizes this isn’t real life at The Masters. Trying to sit around and have dinner when his sister doesn’t want to eat when everybody else is eating and has a fit, that’s real life.”
“She is the funniest member of our family,” Jordan said. “I really love when she’s able to be out there. Love spending time with her. It’s humbling to see her and her friends and the struggles they go through each day that we take for granted- their kind of lack of patience or understanding, where it seems easy for us and it’s not for them.

“But, at the same time, they are the happiest people in the world, and when I say they, I speak to special-needs kids. And my experience with her and in her class and with her friends, it’s fantastic. I love being part of it and helping support it.”

Spieth’s rise to professional golf fame has come quickly. He left college after his freshman year at Texas when the Longhorns won a National Championship. In 2010, at the age of 16, Spieth was a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team. Little did any of us know at the time what was ahead in the next five years for this kid from who would win three times on the PGA Tour including a Masters and as well as the Australian Open- plus a spot on the President’s Cup and the Ryder Cup.

In the days that followed the Masters, Spieth went on a whirlwind tour which included numerous media stops in New York City. He had previously committed to play the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head. Everybody would have understood if Spieth had backed out of that the week after his win at Augusta. In the first round he shot 74 and appeared fatigued. On Friday he rebounded with a 62 and wound up finishing 10th. He played in this tournament because it had given him a sponsor’s exemption earlier in his career when he needed it.

On that Sunday night, Spieth boarded a jet and flew to Dallas to help present the Female Vocalist of the Year Award at the American Country Music Awards. He wore his green jacket onto the stage in front of a standing ovation from his hometown fans. Spieth looked awkward in the moment, but if you know Jordan it was his humility shining through.

Miranda Lambert won the award and never so much as acknowledged Spieth during the presentation. She probably wondered who the usher in the green jacket was. It was a telling moment and it put golf celebrity status into proper perspective.

But, it was another defining moment in the great personal life of Jordan Spieth. Golf fans will have decades to enjoy the evolution of the next American superstar. My prediction is that it will be a glorious ride not marred by any off-course controversies. Speith is the stuff that real heroes are made of.       




Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Masters Preview

It’s tough to beat this week in sports. The NCAA basketball finals. Opening Day for Major League Baseball. The Masters week. There is something for everyone and even many casual or non-golfers will tune into The Masters this weekend. This golf tournament has become the biggest in the world.
For many golf operators in the Northern States this week kicks off another new season. There is something about the pristine beauty of Augusta National that motivates all of us associated with the sport of golf. Everybody will optimistically approach 2015 next week and we can thank The Masters for that. 

As compelling as the telecast of The Masters is, golfers will have a hard time staying in front of the TV this week and not heading to the course to play or hit golf balls. I was a victim of that in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest winner of The Masters at the age of 46. The finish that year was going to be a good one with Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer all in the mix. Nicklaus had played the first eight holes in even par and it looked like he was a non-factor.

Some of my buddies and I were watching The Masters at the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton. We were itching to get out and play ourselves. So, we hit the links mid-afternoon only to miss one of the most historic finishes ever. Nicklaus would make a birdie on #9 and then fire a six-under par 30 on the Back Nine to edge Norman and win his sixth Masters title.

The 2015 Masters story lines are numerous. Rory McIlroy will be trying to win his career Grand Slam. He has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Only a Green Jacket at Augusta eludes the lad from Northern Ireland when it comes to major championship victories.

Bubba Watson will attempt to win back-to-back Masters. The last time this happened was in 2001-’02 when Tiger Woods did it. Nick Faldo (1989-’90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-’66) are the only other players to win two consecutive Masters. With another victory Watson would join the elite group of Faldo, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Phil Mickelson as three-time winners.

Lefties have won six of the past twelve Masters starting with Mike Weir in 2003. Mickelson did it in 2004- ‘06- ’10 and then Bubba in 2012- ’14. All three are right to left players and today’s Augusta National demands that ball flight. A win this year would also mean Watson has won three of the past four Masters. Only Nicklaus has equaled that feat by winning in 1963- ’65- ’66.

The hottest player on the PGA Tour right now is Jordan Spieth. In the last three weeks he has a victory, a runner-up and a sudden death playoff loss on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open. A year ago at The Masters, Spieth had a two shot lead early in the final round, but he fell to Watson and ultimately finished tied for second. Spieth just seems to improve every week.

Jimmy Walker has five PGA Tour victories in the past 18 months, a feat unmatched by any player including McIlroy. Walker won as recently as two weeks ago at San Antonio. He has what it takes to win at Augusta. Walker has length and a great short game. Of local interest, his caddy is Andy Sanders whose father, Greg, graduated from Franklin High School.   
There will be plenty of attention on Ben Crenshaw who will playing in his final Masters. He won this event in 1984 and 1995. Crenshaw will probably make his final stroll up the 18th Fairway at The Masters on Friday. Gentle Ben will be playing in his 44th Masters this week and he has recorded a top five finish on eight occasions. Crenshaw who is considered as one of the finest putters in the history of the game won the ’95 Masters and never recorded a three-putt- a rare feat on Augusta’s tricky greens.

You can always count on some quirky drama at The Masters. Even though the course has gotten longer over the years, in 2014 Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bernhard Langer, both Seniors, finished in the Top 10. Two years ago during the second round Woods hit a perfect third shot into the par-5 15th Hole only to have his ball hit the flagstick and bound backwards into the lake in front of the green. He took an incorrect drop which led to a controversial penalty being assessed the following day forcing him out of contention with an 8 on the hole.    
Speaking of Woods, he will be making another comeback this week. I have lost track of Tiger’s comebacks. It’s getting old from a legend who has all of a sudden become long in the tooth for a 39-year old. Don’t expect anything out of Woods this week. His recent chipping woes set him up for failure with Augusta’s green side undulations and tight lies.

In a recent poll conducted by Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest, 68% of the 1,000 plus who voted said that Woods would either miss the Masters cut, not finish the first two rounds or never even make it to the tee on Thursday. Woods has taken lots of time off to work on his game and get ready for The Masters. Sadly, I am afraid we will again see a man who is only a shadow of himself.

Conversely, The Masters won’t let us down this week. It always delivers lots of special moments filled with beautiful scenery. Whatever the story lines that are about to unfold, they will be historic and we will talk about them for years to come. After all, this is The Masters.