Watching Jordan Spieth dominate the Masters and hit clutch shot after clutch shot at the U.S. Open — and be by all accounts one of the most gracious and polite people on the PGA Tour — it’s very easy to forget that he’s only 21 years old.
Unlike Tiger Woods, who when he was dominating seemed to be doing things physically with the ball that many players couldn’t do, Spieth is more of an “regular” champion, if there is such a thing.
It’s fascinating to watch him go through this incredible stretch of performance and marvel at how well he seems to be able to handle the pressure and attention that come with golf at the highest level. This is a guy that not only doesn’t seem to crack under pressure, but thrives on it.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 12, 2015
On the PGA Tour (and in every other sport at the world class level) the reality is that very little physically separates the competitors at the very top. They’re all extremely talented people, with physical skills the average fan can only dream about. The separation comes from how those players handle pressure, stress and adversity. For some, the moment gets to be too big.
Watching the John Deere Classic, you had to feel for Tom Gillis — a 46-year-old journeyman pro who was trying for his first PGA Tour victory. Spieth caught him at the end of regulation, then beat Gillis on the second hole of the playoff. Even though Gillis has been grinding it out on various tours since before Spieth was born, Jordan has lived a completely different kind of golf life, and actually has far more experience — and more recent experience — closing the deal at the end of a tournament.
Physically, mentally and emotionally, it was a mismatch.
It isn’t Gillis’ fault. He wasn’t the first person Jordan Spieth “out-toughed” at the end of a tournament, and he won’t be the last. That doesn’t have anything to do with Spieth’s ability to hit a ball 300 yards, or spin his 7-iron approach shot more than anybody else.
Jordan Spieth is one of those rare athletes that seems to get more comfortable the hotter it gets in the competitive arena. He looks comfortable — as if he’s where he wants to be, and his expectation is that he will hit the big shot. It doesn’t mean he always will — Michael Jordan missed plenty of game winners. But the huge difference between players like Spieth and Michael Jordan is that they did not see the potential to miss one of those shots as something to fear, or even think about.
They see the opportunity to make the big shot as the entire reason for being in the sport. It’s what they live for, and they can’t wait to have another opportunity to do it, and to feel the excitement that comes from not only pulling it off, but having the chance to pull it off.
Where does that come from?
That’s a good question. Part of it is certainly innate. Some people are born with more mental toughness, just like some people are born with more height. But some of it certainly comes from the atmosphere surrounding him as he grew up. He seems to have a strong, tight inner circle of family and friends, and a healthy inner circle can help keep an athlete grounded and with the right kind of perspective. Those strong, long-term relationships make it easier to avoid going down the road where the ego needs to be constantly satiated by attention.
The last piece of the puzzle is practice and training. Most of the best competitors in any sport understand that training the mind is just as important — if not more important — than training the body. They don’t go in unprepared.