ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Jordan Spieth has a secret.
It’s nothing too devious or dastardly, but he doesn’t like to admit it, either. He’s got his reasons.
To understand these reasons, we first must examine his maturation.
There were moments in the past when Spieth pushed a drive or pulled an approach shot or flat-out missed a putt. He’d react by muttering under his breath. Wearing a scowl across his face. Maybe slamming a club against the turf. Nothing too demonstrative, but in the demure world of golf, even the smallest emotional allowances are viewed under a critical microscope.
And so he’s tried to curtail any outbursts, no matter how brief. He’s educated himself on how to do this in his 30 months of being a professional golfer. He might pull his hat down over his face, ensuring his muttering remains inaudible. Or forcibly squeeze the grip of his club, rather than slamming it to the ground.
These efforts thwart any potential for criticism, but they still allow for an emotional release. They enable him to react in the moment instead of bottling his irritation.
All of which is important, because therein lies Spieth’s secret.
He plays better when he’s angry.
There exists no better example of this than the end of last month’s U.S. Open. After a double-bogey on the 17th hole Sunday afternoon, Spieth marched to the final tee box with one of those scowls clear across his face. The burned-out grass crunched beneath his feet as he stomped ahead. His caddie, Michael Greller, tried to keep him focused — and maybe he did — but the anger was soon channeled into success.
He pummeled a drive down the par-5 closing hole at Chambers Bay, cranked his second shot onto the green and two-putted for a birdie that would eventually lead to his second straight major championship victory. Maybe he didn’t win specifically because he got mad, but it certainly didn’t hurt him, like it would have for so many other players.
That brings us to this week’s Open here at the Old Course, where Spieth has already endured plenty of frustration.
The player widely considered the world’s best putter had three-putted three times during the second round before play was suspended Friday evening. When he returned in gale-force winds Saturday morning, he proceeded to three-putt his very next hole, too, leaving the first two putts short right into that wind.
Following the second attempt, he swung his putter toward the ball. He didn’t hit it and didn’t hit the green. It was like an angry practice swing, that emotional release he often needs.
“I was just mad that I left two putts short,” he’d later admit. “That was also my fourth three-putt in a row where the first putt was left well short, so that was what was really frustrating was that I just wasn’t hitting them hard enough and not adjusting to the speeds and playing the wind. It was myself.”
Unlike the last hole of the U.S. Open, Spieth wasn’t able to channel this anger into immediate success. He couldn’t wallop his next drive down the fairway; couldn’t turn it into a bounce-back birdie.
Soon afterward, the horn sounded, suspending play for what would be 10 hours and 28 minutes.
Not long after the 6 p.m. restart, Spieth again three-putted — a fifth time in the round for a player known as the world’s best putter. He again angrily gestured his flatstick toward the turf, and this time was able to bounce back, carding a birdie on his final hole to post an even-par 72 and remain five strokes off the lead in an attempt to claim the third leg of the Grand Slam.
He still has plenty to be mad about, though.
For the round, Spieth totaled 37 putts — the highest number of his short professional career. It should leave him irritated once again. Everybody in the field has their hypothetical coulda-woulda-shouldas, but if those five three-putts had all been limited to two-putts, he’d share the lead with Dustin Johnson at the midway point right now.
That’s a major difference, too, not just in the tangible number, but in the mindset of trying to come from behind. Each of the last seven majors have been won by the 36-hole leader — and yes, that includes both of Spieth’s major triumphs this year.
He’s proven he can close the deal at big events, but now he must show that he can play the role of chaser. That’s not as simple as it might sound.
In his 14 career major victories, Tiger Woods only trailed by five or more at the halfway point on a single occasion — the 2005 Masters, when he was down six. More importantly, Woods was never further from the lead than a share of fifth at this point in any of his major wins.
By comparison, Spieth is a lowly T-14 going into the third round.
It will leave him in new territory, trying to win a major in come-from-behind fashion, rather than as the man to beat. His performance will also probably leave him still angry going into these final 36 holes, which might be a problem for some players, but could serve as beneficial in this circumstance.
After all, that just might be Spieth’s secret weapon. He plays better when he’s angry.