The next two events are among the most important on Jordan Spieth’s calendar each year.
This week, he returns to the tournament that served as his TOUR debut, where he twice contended as a teenager but has yet to win. He’s hoisted the trophy at the other TOUR stop in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the Charles Schwab Challenge, but winning his hometown event, the AT&T Byron Nelson, has eluded him. Then Spieth will try to complete the Career Grand Slam at a course that seems to complement his skill set, Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Spieth heads into this important fortnight in good form, fresh off a victory at the RBC Heritage. Sharing his home this week with two friends, Justin Thomas and Jason Dufner, should help alleviate any pressure he may feel to win a home game and the only major lacking from his resume.
“I always want to play really well here,” said Spieth, whose T9 in last year’s AT&T Byron Nelson, the first played at TPC Craig Ranch, is his best in 10 appearances at this event. “It’s obviously one that’s starred on the calendar.”
So is the PGA Championship, the tournament that’s stood between him and the Career Grand Slam for each of the past five years. This year’s venue, Southern Hills, is one Spieth played in his amateur days, but it has undergone a dramatic renovation by Gil Hanse since then. That’s one reason Spieth and Thomas, following in the flight path of Tiger Woods and Scottie Scheffler, visited Southern Hills earlier this week for an early PGA Championship practice round.
Since Hanse’s renovation, the thick Bermudagrass rough that lined the holes of the Perry Maxwell design have been replaced by short grass. It’s a change that makes the short game that much more important because players must pick their pitch shots precisely. It’s similar to another course where Spieth has had plenty of success, Augusta National. The tiny targets also play to another of Spieth’s strengths, his iron play.
“It’s tough to chip,” Thomas said about Southern Hills. “I mean the balls roll off the green, they go pretty far away. You get some grainy, elevated greens to where it's difficult to get the ball around the hole and over the course of the round in a tournament that can be quite a few shots and the person I think that does that the best is going to have the best chance of winning.”
It was Thomas’ first trip to the course. He said he was “blown away” by the layout, despite the 35 mph gusts they faced in their practice round.
“I thought tee to green it was excellent,” he said. “I thought it challenged kind of all facets of your game. You have to work the ball quite a bit, you have to, you really, really have to be good around the greens. You can't fake your way around it.”
Spieth played Southern Hills in the 2009 U.S. Amateur, when he was still in high school.
“It’s changed so much and I was 15 or 16 years old, so I just wanted to see it … take some stress off practice rounds next week and be able to do nine each day instead of feeling like I got to go out and learn a lot,” Spieth said. “The golf course was fantastic. I loved it. The green complexes are perfectly fitting to the holes. The greens play maybe three quarters of the size that they actually are. There's a lot more runoffs than I remember into Bermuda chipping areas and into runoff areas that are mowed. So, you can be left with a lot of really delicate little shots.
“I think it's going to be a really firm and fast PGA and it's going to be one of the higher scoring PGAs that we have seen. It was a great test. I really enjoyed playing it.”
Spieth often plays the week before a major, whether it’s the Valero Texas Open before the Masters or the John Deere Classic before The Open. He wouldn’t miss this week, when he can play host to his friends.
“I’ve got no complaints thus far, but it's only Wednesday, so ask me later in the week,” he joked about his housemates.
Thomas added this event to his schedule as he ponders a different method for preparing for the majors. Thomas’ PGA win came after playing the week prior at Firestone, but he traditionally doesn’t play the week before a major. But this is Thomas’ first start since the RBC Heritage. He last played TPC Craig Ranch in Q-School nine years ago and with Spieth’s current caddie, Michael Greller, on the bag. Thomas is 20th in the FedExCup with six top-10s, but not a win, this season.
“I felt like taking four weeks off into a major wasn't a very smart idea … and I personally just want to try something a little different this year,” Thomas said. “These last three majors, I'm going to see how I feel this week, and potentially add (the RBC Canadian Open, the week before the U.S. Open), but I just want to play the week before and see how that feels and see how that gets going into next week and seeing if that can lead to some success.
“My game has been very, very solid this year. It just hasn't produced any wins, which is what I play for. I'm getting close, I just got to stay patient and just let it come. I know that it will. Just have to be in the right frame of mind for it and hopefully we can get on a little run whenever it does happen.”