Diving into the competitive mind of Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth finished in a tie for 28th overall at this past week's PGA Championship, meaning he'll have to wait another year until he gets another shot at the career Grand Slam. Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the late Friday gloaming, bats circled overhead like vultures. The scene beneath them wasn't much different. Jordan Spieth had just finished a second-round 73, leaving him 11 strokes behind the PGA Championship leaders.

Standing in the shadowy glow of the ornate Quail Hollow clubhouse, the 24-year-old, who had entered the week vying to become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam, looked equal parts shell-shocked and frustrated, with maybe a pinch of relief mixed in. Cameras shuttered all around him. Reporters craned their necks to hear his words. He analyzed his round, assessed his performance. Then, finally, he acquiesced.

"I kind of accept the fact," he said without hesitation, "that I'm essentially out of this tournament."

The words were tough for Spieth to swallow. Following last month's dramatic win at Royal Birkdale, he had the opportunity to not only become the sixth player to claim a career slam, but also the youngest. Here was a player who hates losing, who despises being one-upped, with a chance to rewrite the record books.

Spoiler alert: Spieth was right. He finished in a share of 28th place, with his chance at golf's holy grail put on hold until next August in St. Louis.

He knew it wouldn't be easy, but prior to the opening round here, Spieth was asked about any internal pressures he was feeling to set this mark.

"It's not a burning desire to have to be the youngest to do something," he explained. "That would be the only reason there would be -- added expectations. The more years you go on playing PGAs, and if I don't win one in the next 10 years, then maybe there's added pressure."

Did he really mean that? Or was it just part of the mental build-up that golfers create? Like any great magician, he won't reveal his trick. Why would he? It brought him back to life after drowning his hopes at last year's Masters; it facilitated his escape from the handcuffs of another untimely disaster at last month's Open Championship.

Even though he faltered last weekend, this kind of mindset offers him a competitive advantage over his fellow competitors -- or at least the illusion of an advantage, which is just as important.

Oh, the others have guessed at it. They've stared daggers through the fair-haired, genial Texan, wondering what he has that they don't. Rory McIlroy thinks it has to do with "resilience." Phil Mickelson explains it away as "intangibles." Ernie Els won't even try. "You can't really describe it," he sighed.

Here's what we do know: Spieth's secret has nothing to do with foisting laser-beam iron shots directly at tucked pins or holing more 30-foot putts per round than your average scramble outing. It's about gaining a mental edge. It's about his ability to win golf tournaments with his mind as much as his clubs.

Case in point: This week after he was out of contention, he specifically cited his final-round 69 at this year's U.S. Open as a springboard to a significant summer.

"I was out of it, but I gathered a little something off that Sunday round that led to two wins in two tournaments after that, including a major," he said. "Just one round like that can do that."

From one champion to another

Competitors can only receive advice during a round from their caddies, but there was someone who wished he could have whispered a few inspirational messages into Spieth's ear.

Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist, had a front-row seat as he walked inside the ropes with Spieth's group during Thursday's first round. He watched his friend fight an indifferent swing and balky putting stroke on his way to a 1-over 72.

"I wanted to walk up and say, 'Just trust it. You've done the work, you've done the preparation, just go and do what you know how to do,'" Phelps said after the round. "You've got to find a way to channel that, to change that into a positive. I always learned from the mistakes I made in the pool. It always motivated me, like, 'I know how to do it, I need to get back on track.' It's almost figuring out a certain way how his mind works and translating it to on the course."

In recent months, Spieth has struck up a full-time friendship and part-time mentorship with Phelps. The two of them have played golf together a few times and Spieth has eaten dinner at Phelps' home. They hardly talk shop all the time, but when they do, the swimmer sees a kinship with the golfer.

"I picked his brain about [last year's] Masters," said Phelps, referring to Spieth's two shots into Rae's Creek at the 12th hole, which led to a quadruple-bogey and extinguished his lead that cost him a second consecutive green jacket. "I was like, 'Why did you hit that shot?' He said, 'It was my shot.' The way he explained it, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, he's got a great head on his shoulders. This kid doesn't seem like he's 24.' It's fun for me to see that."

On Thursday, Spieth was 3-over with three holes to play. He chalked up two closing birdies to "easier holes," but there was certainly some of that Phelps attitude involved, too. After all, any hole is easier when you drive it into the fairway and hit a tight approach.

"You've just got to figure out what makes him tick and what makes him work and what makes him go to that extra level," Phelps said. "I'm here to help. I love watching these guys and coming out here and seeing what they do so well. If some little thing that I've gone through can help him in any way, then obviously I'd love to help."

When asked later about the guidance Phelps has offered, Spieth deferred. "[We've] talked through a lot of things that I will probably just keep to myself."

There's that secret again.

Its complexity is comparable to that of another Texas golfer. In 1955, Ben Hogan authored an article for Life magazine titled, "My Secret." The intricacy was twofold: it was a combination of swing keys that Hogan had employed throughout his career, and it was literally his secret -- not the secret for every golfer.

"It's not a burning desire to have to be the youngest to do something. That would be the only reason there would be -- added expectations. The more years you go on playing PGAs, and if I don't win one in the next 10 years, then maybe there's added pressure." Jordan Spieth on how he didn't feel added pressure to complete the career slam at the 2017 PGA Championship

There's no "Rosebud" to decipher for Spieth. There's no instantaneous switch that motivates him to play better golf. It's more about the overall mindset and method that he believes works best for him.

"It might be, he wakes up at 6:42 and has breakfast at 7:00 and takes a s--- at 7:45 and hits 50 wedge shots instead of 49 wedge shots," said Cody Gribble, a former Texas teammate who was in last week's PGA field. "He just believes in his routine. He believes in his deal and he sticks to it. He just believes his way is the absolute best way."

The secret is as real as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny -- if you believe in it, then it exists. Not everyone does.

"I don't think there is such a thing," said Jordan's father, Shawn Spieth. "None of us really know. It's just something inside. He's not going to tell you what he does know."

Sure enough, when asked what he has learned from his three major victories, Spieth flinched. "That's kind of, you know, what we like to keep to ourselves."

The lessons learned

Shawn Spieth had the near-perfect story to explain the nature of his son's competitive fire.

It was 2009, when Jordan was 16 and playing in the Texas Amateur Championship. Shawn was caddying for him that week.

"He got off to a shaky start," Shawn recalled. "Didn't get up and down from a bunker, and he was taking it with him to the next hole. We're as far out as we can get on the course and he's bitching about it. So I put his bag down. 'Are we moving on or do you have the bag?' He said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' And that flipped him. He played great the rest of the day."

Another former Texas teammate, Dylan Fritelli, said Spieth's competitive nature even carried over to ... ping-pong matches. "I would beat him five games in a row," said Fritelli, who was also in the Quail Hollow field. "He would not leave and he wouldn't let me leave. I'd say, 'Dude, I've got to practice.' Nope. He'd make me stay on the table and play again. Eventually, I would play, but maybe let him win if I had to practice. But that's who he is. He has to win. He has to get to the top. That might change later on in life, but for now, he has that burning desire. That's what fuels him."

Spieth still gets mad. He still talks to his ball like the thing has ears, still complains when the bounces aren't going his way on the course. Walking off the fifth green after a bogey on Thursday, he said to caddie Michael Greller, "That makes no sense at all. It's these new greens. They do two different things." But just as he learned that day from his father, there's a way to channel those frustrations.

"I wanted to walk up and say, 'Just trust it. You've done the work, you've done the preparation, just go and do what you know how to do.' You've got to find a way to channel that, to change that into a positive." Michael Phelps on watching Jordan Spieth struggle in the golfer's first round at Quail Hollow

Though he doesn't like to offer up too much detail about what he's learned in his three major victories and three other runner-up finishes, Spieth did say much of this is connected to his ability to adapt to any unforeseen situation.

"Each win was very different from each other, each one of the major wins," he said. "Each loss was different, and that's probably the way it will continue to be. You very rarely have parallel wins. Tiger had very parallel wins in the way that he got it done, but that was almost like a robot, and I don't really expect that to happen with myself based on what I've seen the first few times."

Hearing these words, it makes sense how he was able to put the Masters loss behind him; it makes sense how he could go from playing poorly, dropping his ball on the driving range at The Open last month and close a dramatic triumph only five holes later.

"It's just about being able to adapt to situations quickly and use that to my advantage," he added. "They take different shapes, and so each one I can certainly take something out of."

The bigger picture

Only five players have completed golf's holy grail, the career Grand Slam. Gene Sarazen was the first, long before the term existed. He had skipped the inaugural edition of what was first called the Masters Invitational to perform with a trick-shot artist in South America, then won it the next year. Ben Hogan was next in 1953, famously prevailing in his only Open Championship appearance, before deadpanning: "I've got a lawnmower back in Texas; I'll send it over."

By the time Gary Player clinched the slam with a U.S. Open win in 1964 and Jack Nicklaus at The Open two years later, the feat was more noteworthy. Tiger Woods made it a fivesome in 2000, winning the final two legs within a month of each other, the only man in the past half-century to join the game's most exclusive club.

The common thread between them? None needed more than three chances once they had gotten three of them. Arnold Palmer played 34 PGA Championships after having the other three; Tom Watson played in 24 PGA; Sam Snead played in 23 U.S. Opens. They never won the last piece of the puzzle.

Which brings us back to Spieth.

The lasting image of Spieth at this major doesn't even show a club in his hands. Hours after his round at the PGA was over, he hugged his buddy Justin Thomas, the newest major champion, and gave him a slap on the butt for good measure. Spieth was all smiles, not only for the celebration, but also for knowing how quickly things can turn in this game.

What will he take out of this one, a mediocre result in which he neither played great nor poorly? After he finished playing, Spieth answered that question by invoking thoughts about execution, both in his swing and putting technique.

Then, he told a story.

Just minutes earlier, as they were walking off the final green, Greller sidled up to him.

"Hey, I just want you to know, that's a great year in the majors," Greller told him.

"Buddy, we won one of the majors," Spieth answered. "If I did this every year, I would go down as the greatest ever to play the game."