Until he flashes some Sunday magic in another major championship, Dallas resident Jordan Spieth knows many golf fans will continue to judge him by his Masters meltdown in April rather than his stellar record as a final-round finisher in high-profile events.
That is why the reigning U.S. Open champion is eager to play his way into weekend contention in his title defense at Oakmont Country Club, which begins with Thursday’s opening round.
Spieth wants to show that last month’s triumph in Fort Worth, where he closed with six back-nine birdies in a Sunday comeback at Colonial Country Club to win the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, has allowed him to bury any lingering concerns about squandering a five-shot lead with nine holes to play at the 2016 Masters.
“Honestly, I think it’s out of our heads now just from that one experience at Colonial,” Spieth said during a news conference earlier this week in Oakmont, Pa. “That was a huge week for us, especially to win before any of the next majors. I can draw back on Colonial. If you’re coming off a recent win, getting back into contention is a more natural state. If you’re coming off kind of a heartbreaking loss, getting back into contention can be fearful and you’ve just got to push through the fear.”
Spieth, 22, believes he did some of the most significant mental pushing of his young career in Fort Worth by posting a back-nine 30 in his Sunday round to punctuate “one of the most important days that I’ve ever had” on a golf course.
Confidence validated that day, said the No. 2 player in the world golf rankings, will have carryover value this week at Oakmont as Spieth seeks to extend a remarkable run of success in recent major championships.
In his last five majors, Spieth has finished fourth or better in each event, including victories at the 2015 Masters and 2015 U.S. Open. But he knows most fans still focus on last month’s Masters meltdown, where he pumped two shots into the water at the 12th hole in his Sunday round that opened the door to a stunning comeback victory for England’s Danny Willett.
The collapse remains a talking point in news conferences, including this week at Oakmont. It will be a difficult image for fans to dismiss until Spieth replaces it with a fresh, positive memory in another major setting. Oakmont offers that opportunity and Spieth said he has “prepared a little harder” for this major with an eye toward making that happen.
Regardless of how this week unfolds, Spieth has the respect and support of Jack Nicklaus, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who holds the record for major championships won by a professional golfer (18). Nicklaus, 76, downplayed concerns about any long-term damage to Spieth’s psyche during a recent news conference at the Memorial Tournament, an event hosted by Nicklaus.
“What happened to Jordan at Augusta, he’ll learn from that and it will be one of the best things that ever happened to him. He’ll be just fine,” said Nicklaus, who shared a tale of a similar final-round collapse during the early stages of his career.
It occurred at the 1960 U.S. Open when Nicklaus, then 20, was paired with Fort Worth golf legend Ben Hogan in the final round. Nicklaus looked at a scoreboard and learned he held the lead with six holes to play.
“I proceeded to fall apart like a $3 suitcase,” Nicklaus said, citing a pair of three-putts and a closing bogey that caused him to finish two strokes back of Arnold Palmer, the eventual champion. “I would have loved to have won that tournament. But maybe the best thing that ever happened to me was the learning experience that I had from it. Did it destroy my life? No. I put what I learned there to use.”
In a similar vein, Nicklaus predicted Spieth will do likewise with his 2016 Masters meltdown. In Spieth’s mind, he took a significant step in that direction at Colonial. He just needs to follow suit in a major championship to convince those who were not in Fort Worth to witness his rally. Spieth indicated he is prepared to do that, with help from caddie Michael Greller.
Spieth credited Greller with doing “maybe his best work that he’s ever done” during Colonial week in helping him shake the mental funk of recent Sunday disappointments at the Masters and the A&T Bryon Nelson. The tandem also has formulated a game plan to handle the fast, sloping greens and narrow fairways at Oakmont.
“He’s really good at not only getting me mentally prepared but dissecting the golf courses with me to feel like we have the best game plan,” Spieth said. “A lot of it is mental. I feel that we’ve geared everything up to peak at a major. That makes me as confident as I can be.”
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