I was headed to the practice area late Wednesday morning at East Lake to chat with players and look for a good story on the eve of the Tour Championship. Well, sometimes the most fun ones are the kind you just happen to stumble upon. In other words, you’re at the right place at the right time.
That’s what happened today. I stopped to talk with Ryan Palmer’s caddie James Edmondson, who was waiting for his player on the first tee. As Palmer was teeing off, Rickie Fowler strolled up, then Jimmy Walker and Jordan Spieth.
Wait, I thought — is this a Ryder Cup practice match? It’s gotta be. So I asked and indeed it was. How did it come about? Well, actually, on Tuesday Walker’s caddie Andy Sonders took the initiative and suggested they get a group from the American squad together when Jimmy and Rickie were playing a practice round, which Jordan crashed at some point.
The three guys hit their tee balls as they waited for their fourth to show up. Just in the nick of time, Zach Johnson came running up toward the tee box and waving at the group jokingly to announce his arrival.
Spieth and Zach had decided to team up. Well, actually, it was Jordan, who texted Zach the night before because he thought Zach would make a good partner for him.
“I picked Zach,” said Spieth. “I texted Zach (yesterday). He’d be a good partner for me possibly in the Ryder Cup. That’s what I was thinking, I don’t know what he was thinking, so I was selfish and I asked him.”
Well, interesting enough, when I spoke with Zach, he said the same thing about Spieth.
“I like Jordan as a partner,” said Johnson. “His game is boring like mine. It’s pretty straightforward, nothing flashy. He hits the ball a little farther obviously, but he’s a great putter and got a great short game.
“He’s gritty. He likes the old cliche, ‘Put me in coach, I want the ball.’ And that’s what I feed off and that’s what I like, too.”
Spieth echoed similar sentiments.
“We have very similar games,” he said. “It’s nice because we’re used to hitting from the same spots. We both drive the ball very straight. We kind of play smart golf and keep ourselves in each hole.
“I’m a bit more of an aggressive player, so there are times in best ball it might be advantageous for me to take those chances when he’s safer, or if he’s in better position, vice versa.”
The guys were playing a nine-hole best ball match, which got off to a hot start. Walker birdied the first three holes and either Spieth or Johnson matched him on two of them. After Jimmy drained an eight-footer on the third hole, Spieth joked from the greenside bunker, “Why can’t I have Jimmy as my partner??”
Spieth and Johnson were holding their own, though. They birdied five of the first six holes.
Zach was tinkering with two drivers — a 9.5 degree and a 10.5 degree. At one point early on, he switched the heads on both of them even though they technically had the same shaft, but he wanted to see if it made a difference. He told me that he cracked his driver of two years at The Barclays, so he was searching for a replacement.
I deadpanned, “Oh, because you’re such a beast?”
He shot back with a straight face, “I don’t appreciate your sarcasm there.”
Don’t worry, he was joking. I wouldn’t have made that comment had I not felt comfortable enough to know Zach could take it. After all, it’s no secret he’s not exactly a bomber (and I’d take his game any day).
Then, Zach shared with me that Gary Woodland — even though it was Gary he was talking about — had to keep three spare driver heads in his locker last year because every week he’d either cave in a face or crack it or break it somehow since he’s such a power hitter.
But I digress, back to the match.
Butch Harmon, who works with Walker and Rickie, was walking with the group and he spotted Spieth’s putter head cover — it was the one from the 2010 Junior Ryder Cup, which happened to be held at Gleneagles. Spieth was part of the victorious American team.
“You have to use this at the Ryder Cup!” said Butch.
Spieth replied that he planned on it. He put it back in play at the start of the Playoffs because he knew it was “good luck” — and that was also the time when he knew had earned an automatic spot on the big boys’ Ryder Cup squad.
It’s kind of insane that only four years ago Spieth was in high school and playing the junior version of the biennial matches against Europe, which are held the week prior.
“Yeah,” Spieth exclaimed when I pointed that out. “I got myself on the 2010 team and it happened to be played at Gleneagles, where the Ryder Cup was going four years later. At the time in high school, I’m thinking, what’s the likelihood of me being back on the Ryder Cup here, is slim to none.
“It never really crossed my mind that I’d be back for the Ryder Cup there. I said, ‘Hey that’d be a really cool goal to somehow have.’ But yeah, once I get back (to Gleneagles), it’s going to be pretty incredible, realizing it wasn’t that long ago I was there with the junior team.”
Despite Walker’s solid play, Spieth and Johnson were holding their own. They took the 1-up lead after Spieth knocked a pure 4-iron to about eight feet on no. 5 and made the putt for a(nother) birdie. The two teams halved the difficult par-3 no. 6, which was playing about 190 yards, with birdies.
However, Spieth and Johnson couldn’t stop Walker, who reminds me a bit of a silent assassin with his steady play and fantastic putting. Jimmy, a three-time winner on Tour this season, drained a five-footer on on. 8 to get the match back to all square heading into the final hole of the day, the par-5 no. 9.
Even though the mood was relatively light, the guys were still taking the match seriously. At least Spieth certainly was. After Zach pushed his drive into the right rough on 9, he hit an excellent fairway wood, carrying the water, though it didn’t hook enough and stayed in the rough. As Rickie was hitting driver off the deck from the right side of the fairway, Spieth was pseudo-frantically asking everyone where Zach’s ball ended up.
“It’s over the water just in the rough on the right,” I informed him.
Spieth wanted the information, so he knew how aggressively he could play his second shot or what he needed to do.
Meanwhile, Rickie had hit a great second shot just short of the green and knocked a little bump-and-run to about three feet. Walker had about a 20-footer, but he had to take a conference call with the Frys.com Open as the past champion for the tournament’s media day.
“I thought we could get the match done in two hours, but we didn’t, so I had to get on the call,” said Walker. “(Rickie) told me he had the birdie.”
Indeed he did. Fowler and Walker beat Johnson and Spieth 1-up in their nine-hole game.
“I think it was good to get the guys together,” said Walker. “We all had a dinner last week together (in Denver) and it was really cool to have everybody together. We’re trying to get that whole team vibe, spirit going and go over there and win.”
Spieth was slightly disappointed after the loss, but certainly not defeated.
“Yeah, we lost,” said Spieth. “We were five-under through 6. Then, we parred the last three. So we still played really well. It was nice to see both our teams get it done.”
As much as Spieth and Zach would like to partner together in a few weeks at Gleneagles, Walker and Fowler voiced much of the same about each other.
“I’d love the opportunity to play with Jimmy,” said Rickie. “Him and I have talked about it. I feel like him and I would go together well.
“He doesn’t really have a weakness in the game. He’s a great ball striker. He’s got a great short game and he’s made a lot of putts this year with the amount of times he’s won this year. Whether that’s in best ball or alternate shot, it doesn’t matter, I feel like he’s a good all-around player.”
Added Jimmy: “Rickie and I get along. We like the same things, we have the same common interests, we both work with Butch. I think we both have the same philosophy on golf and a lot of that is injected by Butch. We get along. I like the way he plays golf. He’s fearless.”
As far as who is partnering with whom at the actual Ryder Cup is still somewhat a mystery. Of course, there are some obvious pairings that have worked in the past and will likely stay the same for at least a match or two — Keegan Bradley/Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson/Webb Simpson.
The rest of the guys are pretty much in the dark, but the four players today made it clear they’re happy to partner with just about any of their teammates. Assistant captain Steve Stricker has kept in touch with the squad to get their feedback.
“No, we don’t know anything,” said Johnson. “Even if …I mean, I think all of us are talking to Stricks about it, but for the most part, that’s irrelevant. I think that’s the beauty of this team — I don’t think it matters who plays with who. We’re all versatile enough and we know each other well enough.”