Sunday, March 26, 2017

Spieth rising from 'valley' after Pebble win

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Boring golf was the plan, and it produced a thrilling result.

Staked to a six-shot lead, Jordan Spieth’s only goal Sunday was to hit as many greens as possible in the final round. He found 17 of them, making two birdies and zero mistakes, stiff-arming the field and winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am by four shots for his first PGA Tour title in nine months.

“Tee to green,” he said, “it was exactly what I was looking for.”

With all of the discussion about the game’s young stars, Spieth issued a timely reminder of his standing in the sport. At 23, he’s the second-youngest player in the modern era to win nine Tour events, behind only Tiger Woods. Comparisons to Woods are best viewed with context – Spieth has nine wins in 100 Tour starts; Woods had 28 in that span – but Spieth’s sustained excellence somehow seems underappreciated in today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? sports culture. He’s a historically great player.

“He’s what you call the greatest player in the world right now,” said Jake Owen, his amateur partner this week. “He’s going to be really hard to beat for a lot of years, because it’s not just his golf swing. It’s what’s between his ears. He does not stop. He’s always there for the win. He’s dominating these guys mentally.”


AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Articles, photos and videos


After a few learning experiences early in his career, Spieth has turned into a reliable closer. Seven of the past eight times he’s held the 54-hole lead, he went on to win. The only time he didn’t? Yeah, it was a biggie – last year’s Masters – but it’s a testament to his resolve, and his short-term memory, that he’s 2-for-2 since then. What’s more, he has posted 13 consecutive under-par final rounds on Tour, and his Sunday scoring average since July is a shade over 67.

Here at Pebble, Spieth’s six-shot lead was sliced in half, but he remained in total control, putting for birdie on all but one hole. Caddie Michael Greller reminded Spieth to “keep playing boring golf,” and he did.

“This was as well as I’ve struck the ball closing a tournament, I think ever,” Spieth said. “The only stress I had was why the birdie putts weren’t going in. That’s awesome. I can take that going forward.”

Added Greller: “He knows what to do, and it was good to see him have those feelings and respond how he has historically under pressure.”

Still, it felt like a long time coming for Spieth, who hadn’t won on Tour since Colonial last May. Coming off a historic season, 2016 was bound to be a transitional year, a time when Spieth found his footing as a global superstar, when he was, Greller said, “the hunted instead of the hunter.”

There were growing pains, no doubt. Spieth’s swing didn’t always cooperate, and his patience was tested, and he grew frustrated with the media and himself for trying to compare the two seasons, 2015 and ’16. But last year he still won three worldwide titles and could have – should have – added another major. For all of the handwringing about Spieth’s game, only Hideki Matsuyama collected more hardware a year ago.

At times, only Spieth could see the big picture.

“If this is a valley,” he said on more than one occasion, “then it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get back up to a peak.”

And so it was Sunday at Pebble Beach, where under a bright blue sky Spieth teamed with Owen, helping the country-music star with lines off the tee and reads on the green. They had a blast all four days, but in the final round Spieth grew mildly frustrated when his speed control was off. He even apologized to Owen on the 17th tee, for not being as social as usual.

“I’m kind of grinding a little bit,” Spieth said.

“Yeah, man,” Owen said with a laugh, “what’s up with that?”

But 10 minutes later, Spieth was all smiles. Owen overheard Spieth giving himself a pep talk as he lined up his 30-footer.

“All right, come on,” Spieth muttered. “This is the one. This one’s going in. You’re due.”

The birdie putt dropped, pushing Spieth’s lead to the final margin of victory, four shots over Kelly Kraft.

“Dude, you called that!” Owen said, walking off the green. “I knew that was going in once you were calling it!”

“I’m glad you knew it was going in,” Spieth replied. “I was just trying to hit it the right speed.”

One of Spieth’s goals for this year was to enjoy the process more, to smile on the course, to remember that he’s living out his dream. They’re little things that are easily forgotten during the grind of a 25-tournament schedule, but further proof that Spieth is growing more comfortable in his own skin.

He has reached an understanding that, in all likelihood, he will never again duplicate his two-major 2015 season, because it requires exceptional play, yes, but also some good fortune.

“But that kind of play can be the normal for me,” he said, “because I’ve seen it before. It can happen again.”

And so far, it has. In 2015, Spieth ranked in the top 15 in strokes-gained driving, approaches, short game and putting. It was clinical. But Spieth’s ball-striking tailed off last season, and he said he worked as hard as he ever has during the offseason with swing coach Cameron McCormick.

“He’s always hungry,” Greller said. “He’s not somebody who is ever going to coast. It’s fun to work for a guy like that. Always hungry. Always driven.”

The hard work has paid off. Though he has bemoaned a cold putter – the middle two rounds boosted his confidence, pouring in putts on spongy, bumpy greens – Spieth has been one of the best iron players on Tour and ranks inside the top 10 in strokes gained overall.

“People think it’s only his putter,” Greller said, “but he’s incredibly well-rounded when you really break down the stats.”

This has been the best start of Spieth’s five-year career. Pebble was his fourth consecutive top-10, and he’s now played all 16 of his rounds under par.

“It’s validation of all the hard work he’s put in this offseason,” Greller said.

And now another peak is in sight.


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