Play Like Spieth
What you can learn from golf's newest breakout star
Jordan Spieth began 2013 as a highly accomplished and promising teenage golfer. For starters, he was a first-team All-American on the Texas Longhorns' 2012 NCAA Championship-winning squad and the only player besides Tiger Woods to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateur titles. Still, upon turning pro at age 19 last season, the Dallas native who grew up playing golf in Brookhaven Country Club's junior program had no status on the PGA Tour, or any other circuit.
That soon changed when he racked up nine Top 10 finishes and became the first teenage Tour winner since 1931. He pulled off his historic feat in memorable fashion, holing a greenside bunker shot on the final hole at the John Deere Classic to force a playoff. Spieth's consistently stellar play earned him a spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup squad and Rookie of the Year honors. By the time his remarkable season ended, he had turned 20 and his new status was crystal clear: Next Big Thing.
What makes this young star so good? For insight, we talked with Cameron McCormick, director of instruction at Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas, who began working with Spieth when the player was 12 and had already shot a 63 in competition. "You could see immediately he was a special talent," McCormick says. "His skills were exceptional, and he could score, too. He knew how to play golf."
Here are four things McCormick says you can learn about playing golf from this fast-rising star.
FULL SWING: SKILLS OVER STYLE
From the beginning with Spieth, McCormick says he stressed ball flight over aesthetics. Too many players, he says, worry about how their swing looks instead of how it performs. "Golf commentators tend to focus on uniqueness and paint it as a fault," McCormick says. "Some of the uniqueness makes players tick."
One defining aspect of Spieth's full swing is how he moves the clubface and his arms through the hitting area (about hip-high on the downswing to hip-high on the follow-through). He keeps the clubface very square to the path on which the club is moving, a trait shared by great ball-strikers such as Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk. Spieth folds his left elbow out and away rather than internally rotating it and tucking the elbow to his side.
"His lead arm flexes out - commonly called ‘chicken-winging,' " McCormick says. "For Jordan, the net effect is that his ball-striking never gets too far off track. That trait is why he has such good control of the ball."
Takeaway: To keep your clubface similarly stable through impact, McCormick suggests pretending that you're holding a tennis racket in front of you rather than a golf club - the extra imaginary surface area helps with visualization - and think about keeping the racket face perpendicular to the front of your body for a longer period of time rather than pointing it toward the ground.
BUNKER PLAY: CARRY SPEED
Spieth's impressive holed bunker shot at the 2013 John Deere Classic was as much about desire as skill, says McCormick, but the golfer's proximity to the hole from the sand proves he has good control over a wide array of shots. One thing all those shots share is sufficient clubhead speed.
"The most common problem with amateurs is they don't take enough speed or intent through the sand," McCormick says. "PGA Tour players understand that the more speed you have, the more control you have."
Takeaway: Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but McCormick cautions against immediately trying to develop Spieth-like variety from bunkers. "The average amateur needs a go-to shot," he says. "It might be taking more sand and chunking it, or hitting closer to the ball and having it come out high with a lot of spin. Find that core concept and develop variations by changing ball position, hinge mechanics, or face relationship as the clubhead moves through the sand to effect different outcomes."
DOWNSWING TRANSITION: BALANCE IS KEY
Nick Faldo and others have noted the unusual way Spieth rolls his trail foot after impact, which is quite pronounced and happens very late compared with most Tour pros. McCormick attributes this move to the player extending his right leg rather than keeping it flexed in the downswing, and regards it as another stylistic outlier that doesn't impact functionality.
Amateurs often overlook these important lower-body mechanics, McCormick notes. We tend to go awry in the transition from backswing to downswing, he says, by being too aggressive too early with a rotational movement rather than, as Spieth does, "bumping" laterally toward the target. We also move far too much pressure to the toes during the downswing instead of ending up with the majority of our weight on the lead heel.
Takeaway: "Imagine you're standing on a balance beam, with your toes hanging over the edge," McCormick says. "As you start the downswing, you want your weight to move from your right heel to the left heel without tipping yourself off the balance beam at the toes."
PRACTICE SESSIONS: PROVE YOUR IMPROVEMENT
Spieth and McCormick keep the golfer's entire game on solid ground, as evidenced by Spieth's No. 3 ranking in the PGA Tour's 2013 All-Around category. After each event, McCormick studies the ShotLink stats and augments the information during a "debriefing" with Spieth when he returns home for practice.
"I always come back to target training - five to 10 shots with a range of clubs, from shortest to longest, with a goal in mind in terms of what ball control we need to exhibit," McCormick says. "We play various games, all of which are about getting the reps that develop the confidence that Jordan can do what he wants with the ball. You want to get out of ‘golf swing mind' and into ‘playing mind.' "
Takeaway: What's good for Spieth is good for you, says McCormick. During practice, deal with your weaknesses first, then move to your strengths. "Practice time needs to reflect your current skills," he says. "And you need to leave practice feeling good about your game for the next round."