Spieth’s pumped for pressure of match play
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

The Masters champ during a practice round at TPC Harding Park on Monday

The Masters champ during a practice round at TPC Harding Park on Monday

Jordan Spieth kicked off his week at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship in a pretty chill manner on Monday. He took a flight on Monday morning from Dallas to San Francisco, and showed up to the driving range at TPC Harding Park by late morning, where he hit balls in front of about a dozen fans, all of whom had their iPhones in hand as they watched the reigning Masters champion warm up. As he walked to the shuttle for the putting green, he signed a few autographs.

After rolling just a few putts — and exchanging a few words with world no. 1 Rory McIlroy — he hopped on another golf cart to the eighth hole, where he met up with Ryan Palmer and Gary Woodland to play an 11-hole practice round. It was his first look at the course. 

Earlier that day, Golf Channel aired a special that showed the selection process for the 16 four-man groups, which will pit the golfers against each other in a round-robin style format for the first three matches. Several players watched it live on TV, but Spieth wasn’t one of them since he was on a plane. However, he may not have even if he had the chance.

“To be honest, I didn’t really care until I got out here because it really doesn’t matter,” said Spieth on the cart ride from the putting green to the 8th tee. “It’s still win or go home. You can catch anybody playing well on that day. This tournament, I don’t know why there’s even an emphasis on the pairings or whatever it really doesn’t make one difference.”

Fair enough. Like many of the players, he likes the new format that’s been introduced this year.

“I think it’s really cool,” he said. “I think it adds some hype around the tournament. At the same time you either have to go 3-0 or you have to get lucky with 2-1 and win a two- or- three-way playoff.”

Spieth, who is currently the hottest golfer on the planet and fresh off winning his first green jacket in historic fashion earlier this month, looked relaxed and joked around with his caddie and playing partners in the 5-6 holes I walked with him during his practice round Monday afternoon. However, he’ll have his game face on when Wednesday rolls around.

“I guess what I can say to that is I embrace being in the hunt,” said Spieth before teeing off his first hole of the day. “I embrace the pressure, I think that’s what we play for. I can’t speak to how anybody else feels about it but for me I believe that we play the game in order to play on the edge, live on the edge, to be in the hunt, to have the pressure and see how our body responds, see how our swing responds, and our putting stroke.

“And I think that’s the whole thrill of it, and I do it for the thrill. I love the game because it can give me that thrill and I can individually control that.”

Even in practice, Spieth will give you a run for your money. Ever since the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, he and his caddie Michael Greller have played a fun money game against Ryan Palmer and his looper James Edmondson. (Palmer, who also lives in the Dallas area, plays with Spieth frequently in practice rounds.) Spieth and Palmer play against each other for birdies. If one of them misses, their caddie then comes in and gives it a go, and if the caddie makes it to win the hole, he wins half. On the final hole, the caddie can come in and hit a shot at anytime. “Makes practice rounds more enjoyable for everyone,” said Edmondson.

On the par-4 12th, Palmer pushed his drive to the right, where he was blocked by several large trees. However, he found a slim opening between two of them and hit a beautiful cut around one that landed on the green and rolled about 20 feet past the hole. From the fairway, Spieth knocked it pin-high to 12 feet.

Palmer missed his putt, so Edmondson came in to take his shot and this time, it went straight in the cup. However, he only had about a minute of glory before Spieth stepped up and curled in his birdie putt inside the left edge to match the birdie.

Of course he did.  Was there ever a doubt? Not really.

“Of course I do, it’s a 12-footer, just outside the edge,” quipped Spieth, smiling. “I’m not saying I don’t miss them, but it’s not the hardest putt in the world.”

When it comes time for the real deal starting on Wednesday, the world no. 2 is looking forward to the challenge.

“I love it,” he said of the match play format. “I’ve had some success and I’ve also had some failures and I’ve also had some failures in it. I just think that it’s just really cool to play head to head.

“You’re both playing the golf course at the same time. You’re not worried about scoreboards. You’re not worried about the draw, obviously. We’re playing the same conditions.”

(Photo via SF Chronicle/Brant Ward)