Stricker guides Spieth through Presidents Cup debut
DUBLIN, Ohio – Steve Stricker, the last man to hit a shot at the Presidents Cup on Thursday, stood on the 18th green in near darkness at Muirfield Village, put his arm around the young charge to his right, and smiled like a father who’d just helped to guide his son to his first driver’s license.
In a strange way, that’s exactly what Stricker had done.
“It was good to get this guy out there,” said Stricker, 46, nodding to 20-year-old rookie Jordan Spieth, “and get his first point as a rookie.”
Yes, Spieth may be the PGA Tour’s newest rocket ship, but in his very first Presidents Cup start, he was experiencing some issues with liftoff. After giving himself a good birdie look on the first hole, which he missed, Spieth checked out for a spell, rinsing two shots in the water and not factoring at all for three holes. That’s when Stricker, the team’s wily veteran, stepped up in a big way. He would birdie five of the first eight holes.
As in, Hey, kid, sit back and just watch for a little bit …
“It’s always important to get off to a good start,” Stricker said, “and I knew what kind of nerves Jordan was going to be dealing with. I was in a similar spot a few years ago – long time ago, but it’s a tough situation, and I thought the pressure was on me to come out and play well, and try to make things easy for him, knowing what he was going to be facing throughout the day.”
Stricker did that in spades, helping the U.S. build an early 2-up advantage over Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge. The Internationals had a few Presidents Cup rookie stalwarts of their own on this day, de Jonge front and center among them. He carried Els, burying eight of his team’s nine birdies.
Eventually, Spieth would join the fray, too, his nerves settled by the coolness and wisdom of Stricker, who even consulted U.S. assistant captain Davis Love III to discuss exactly what he should tell the youngster to help calm him.
Said Love, “I said (to Steve) I would just tell him a joke or get him to relax a little bit. Then Steve and I talked a little bit at the break and I said, you know, the more you tell him to calm down, the worse it’s going to get. But the best thing that happened was Jordan had a birdie putt at 5 after we talked about it, and then he made a birdie putt at 6. After that, he was fine.
“He pulled his weight on the day for sure.”
Eventually, Stricker simply approached Spieth and joked, “When are you going to start playing?”
As Stricker’s hot putter cooled, Spieth jumped in to knock down birdie putts of 30 feet at 10; 15 feet at 12; and 17 feet at 14 before two-putting for one more birdie at the par-5 15th after blistering a 3-wood onto the putting surface from 258 yards.
A day that had begun on shaky terms had taken a promising turn. And it didn’t take Spieth long to be consumed by the spirit of being part of a team. Even as he made his way to the 16th tee, he did so with his eyes fixed at a giant video board showing teammate Webb Simpson standing over a shot at 18. “Let’s go, Webber,” he said aloud.
Afterward, Spieth tried to assess why he had difficulty getting into a rhythm and how he’d failed to stay in six holes. Keeping the ball in play and staying in holes is usually among his strengths. Mostly, he applauded his partner for knowing what to say and when to say it.
“Steve came up to me, and his wisdom was very important,” Spieth said. “He said, ‘I know you’re feeling it, don’t worry, I got you right now. You just take your time, get yourself a putt to go in, and we’ll get rolling.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Spieth would revisit some frustration at the end, when two poor approaches took him out of the final two holes, but his mood quickly shifted once Stricker made a nice up-and-down for par from a plugged lie in the front bunker at 18.
After de Jonge missed a birdie putt, the 1-up victory belonged to the U.S. Not only was that important for the rookie, but it served as a nice boost for Stricker, too, who’d gone 0-4 last autumn at the Ryder Cup.
The old man and the kid had done the job, and their work delivered the first U.S. four-ball session victory at the Presidents Cup since South Africa in 2003. If darkness hadn’t intervened, Spieth appeared fresh enough and enthused enough to go play 18 more holes; Stricker appeared ready to go put his feet up.
The back-and-forth with birdies and the loud “USA” chants made for a day Spieth will remember for a long, long time. The overall quality of play was something that was quite invigorating.
“I can’t remember it ever being like that, on a course like this, definitely not,” he said of his match. “It couldn’t have been any better.”
Well, it could have … but you get the kid’s point.