As Jordan Spieth seeks rebound in 2020, a reflection on his legendary collegiate career
Zephyr Melton/PGA TOUR
AUSTIN, TEXAS – The vast media contingent facing Jordan Spieth at the Travelers Championship last summer was nothing unexpected. As a past champion and former World No. 1, there was obvious intrigue surrounding the budding 25-year-old superstar.
But instead of questions surrounding the positive steps he had recently taken in his game, or even the Travelers Championship win he earned just two years before, the inquiries carried a much more negative undertone.
“What do you most need to improve on do you think right now?”
“Where do you feel like your game is?”
The questions were certainly valid. Since his victory at The Open Championship in 2017—his 11th PGA TOUR victory and third major championship, all before his 24th birthday—Spieth seems to have lost some of the magic that made him such a rising sensation.
Spieth, a consummate professional, was patient and graceful in his responses.
“My iron and wedge play is just… it’s way below my normal standard, and so that needs to significantly improve,” Spieth said. “(I’m) not anywhere near where I want it to be. I need to gain significant control of the golf ball tee-to-green.”
At a glance, the last 24 months for Spieth on the golf course have been solid. He owns 12 top 10s and has missed just eight cuts. But a 12th-career TOUR victory has eluded him ever since he departed Royal Birkdale, and his World Golf Ranking has steadily trended in the opposite direction.
It’s fair to wonder where all of the highs began to steadily taper off for Spieth. The baby-faced Texan made things look so easy when he first burst onto the professional golf scene in 2013 with a dramatic victory at the John Deere Classic, and his game only elevated from there.
But Spieth’s legend started long before his chip-in to force a playoff on the 18th hole at TPC Deere Run on that fateful July day. Most remember the highlight reel that Spieth was in his electric 2015 season. And some even remember as far back as his Sunday 63 to win the Australian Open in 2014, his first professional victory.
Few know the stories of Spieth’s dynamic freshman season at the University of Texas. A season that ended with a team National Championship and Spieth feeling satisfied enough with his amateur accomplishments that he would turn professional at end of the year.
University of Texas men’s golf coach John Fields knew Spieth was special from the first time he saw him play as a junior golfer.
“I knew that I wanted him to come to Texas,” Fields said.
Fields’ wish came true when Spieth committed to Texas on February 6, 2010. The commitment was so meaningful for Fields that he remembers the exact circumstances of the phone call from Spieth affirming his pledge to Texas.
“That was historic for us,” Fields said. “I knew what that meant for our program.”
From the time he walked on campus, people knew Spieth would be special. Even though he was a highly sought-after recruit, his drive and passion for the game never wavered.
“He was very unique in that area,” said Cathy Marino, Spieth’s high school coach at Dallas Jesuit. “He was able to do it on his own and have so much pride in every score that he shot. There was never a day that he wanted to take off or didn’t care immensely about his score.”
In the fall of 2011, Spieth headed to Alabama for the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate, his first in burnt orange for the Longhorns. Minutes before the first round, the face of his driver caved in while warming up on the range, leaving Fields and assistant coach Ryan Murphy scrambling to find a replacement.
The pro shop did not have a Titleist model in stock like the one Spieth had broken, so they settled on a PING model with a similar shaft. The last-minute equipment change was no problem for the freshman. He shot two sub-par rounds before an indifferent final round dropped him out of contention. Nonetheless, Spieth averted disaster in his first collegiate start and returned to Austin with a top 10.
Spieth also established a friendly rivalry with senior teammate Dylan Frittelli soon after the 18-year-old stepped on campus. Frittelli was an established presence and leader on the team and the two pushed each other every day. The duo spent much of the season as some of the top-ranked players in the country and were always looking to best the other.
“If I went up to Frittelli, he would ask me, ‘What’s Spieth doing?’” Murphy said. “And if I went up to Spieth, he would say, ‘What’s Frittelli doing?’ They didn’t want to lose to each other in competition.”
The Spieth-Frittelli rivalry added an exciting chapter at Texas’ tournament in the spring of 2012, the Morris Williams Intercollegiate. Frittelli finished the tournament tied for the lead with teammate Julio Vegas, as Spieth was playing the final hole one stroke behind. With a back hole location, Spieth took dead aim at the flag, but his ball trickled off the back of the green inside the hazard.
Luckily, his ball stayed out of the water and he had a shot, albeit the chances of holing it were slim. The green sloped away from the hazard and he was badly short sided. Spieth examined the shot from every angle and approached the ball.
“You just had this feeling that something amazing was about to happen,” Fields said.
Spieth popped the ball in the air and watched as the ball landed softly and trundled toward the hole. As it closed in on the hole, Spieth raised his left arm into the air. The ball dropped into the cup and Texas had three co-medalists.
“It was his moment,” Fields said. “He is the man of the moment. He can capture that, and he does. That is what he does.”
The Longhorns ended the year with a disappointing second-place finish behind in-state rivals Texas A&M at the Big 12 Championship, but their ultimate goal of a National Championship was still within sight. Another second-place showing at their NCAA Regional site in Oklahoma punched the team’s ticket to the NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club.
Texas arrived at Riviera for the NCAA National Championships ranked No. 1 in the country, with No. 2 Alabama nipping at its heels. The Longhorns stumbled in the second round of stroke play but recovered in the final round to qualify for match play as the three-seed. With Alabama qualifying in the No. 1 spot, the two powerhouses were on a collision course for the championship match.
Texas defeated Washington and Oregon to reach the championship match, while Alabama bested Kent State and California. The stage was set.
As Fields and Murphy headed to the clubhouse for the championship match pairings, Spieth lobbied Fields to pair him with Justin Thomas in the National Championship match if given the opportunity. Although Thomas had won both National Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, Spieth felt he had Thomas’ number.
“Jordan popped out of nowhere; out of the shadows,” Murphy said. “And he says, ‘Hey, if you pair me against Justin, I’ll beat him.’ And he just walked off.”
Spieth’s confidence paid off. He held a slight advantage in the match, going 2-up on his freshman rival through 14 holes, but Thomas applied pressure on No. 15 with an approach shot inside 10 feet. Spieth calmly stepped up to his approach and struck a perfect 4-iron that landed to the right of the hole and tracked into the center of the cup, giving him a commanding 3-up lead which he cashed in for a 3-and-2 victory on the next hole.
“That shot was iconic for us,” Fields said.
Minutes later, Frittelli sunk a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 18 for a dramatic victory over Cory Whitsett to clinch a 3-2 victory for the Longhorns. Spieth, Frittelli and company returned to the University of Texas Golf Club with a National Championship trophy for the first time since 1972.
UT Golf Club pays homage to the many former players that helped build the program, such as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Betsy Rawls, but Spieth’s legend looms even larger than these World Golf Hall of Famers.
Spieth’s legacy is apparent all around the course nestled in the hills of west Austin. There is a Longhorn statue erected behind the 15th green that overlooks Lake Austin, and Spieth’s professional achievements are proudly displayed near the entry to the clubhouse. Spieth even has a six-hole par-3 course named after him which he designed – the Spieth Lower 40.
Spieth even left his mark on the teaching academy – literally. When concrete was being poured for steps leading up to the doors, he took the liberty of carving his initials into them; an appropriate mark left after the legacy that still looms over the proud program.
As Spieth continues his quest for that elusive 12th PGA TOUR victory, he need only reflect on his countless college successes as a harbinger for what is sure to come.
“You’re never going to be on 24/7, even Tiger in his prime wasn’t on 24/7 and had to win tournaments with his ‘A’ game,” Spieth said at last year’s Open Championship. “When he had his ‘A’ game, he won by eight or nine. It’s about compensating and being an athlete and being in position in your swing where you can be an athlete in your lines. Pick apart the golf course the right way. When you’re out of position, make pars; and when you’re in position, attack. I’m getting there. It’s getting there.”