Stricker lifts Spieth as duo secures first-day victory

October 03, 2013
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Steve Stricker let his clubs do the talking at the 18th hole on Thursday when he made a brilliant up-and-down from a partially plugged lie in the greenside bunker to salvage the final point for the Americans in the opening Four-Balls at The Presidents Cup.

Truth be told, though, what Stricker said to Jordan Spieth after the enormously talented 20-year-old got off to an uncharacteristically shaky start may have been just as instrumental in the hard-fought U.S. win.

The two Americans were playing the International team's most experienced player in Ernie Els and rookie Brendon de Jonge. Their 2 up lead had dwindled when Els birdied the 17th hole and was threatening to be erased after Spieth drove into the water at the 18th and Stricker's approach found the sand.

De Jonge was looking at an 18-footer for birdie when Stricker blasted out to 3 feet. The big man from Zimbabwe, who had made eight birdies in his last 13 holes, then missed the putt and Stricker salvaged the all-important par for a full point ranther than the halve that would have tied the overall match.  

"I had an uphill lie and went straight in the air and came up perfectly I guess," Stricker said. "It was a tough match all the way around. Both teams played well. Hate to see somebody lose in that end of it all, but we had a great time."

Stricker paused and grinned as he looked at Spieth, his fresh-faced partner, who is only six years older than the soft-spoken man from Wisconsin's eldest daughter.

"It was good to get this guy out there, get this first point as a rookie," Stricker said. The two played so well together, they'll get another chance in Friday's Foursomes.

"You don't want anybody else to have to get that up and down other than Steve Stricker, so, God, what a match," Spieth said. "It was incredible, the vibe out here, the USA chants. (I'm) looking forward to tomorrow."

But Spieth, who has handled every new experience in a year when he won his first PGA TOUR event while still a teenager with poise beyond his years, admitted he was nervous at the start of his first Presidents Cup. It showed, too, as Spieth followed an opening par with four holes where he was a non-factor, putting the pressure squarely on Stricker's shoulders.

When they got to the fifth tee, the 46-year-old veteran sought out assistant captain Davis Love III. What should he say to Spieth, Stricker asked. How could he get the Texan to start playing the kind of golf that prompted Fred Couples to make him a Captain's Pick?

"I said, 'I would just tell him a joke or get him to relax a little bit,"" Love recalled. "Then Steve and I talked a little bit (during the weather delay) and I said, you know, the more you tell him to calm down, the worse it's going to get.

"But the best thing that happened was Jordan had a birdie putt at 5 after we talked about it and then he made a birdie putt at 6. After that, he was fine."

Indeed, he was. Spieth went on to make a total of six birdies, including a bomb at the 12th hole to preserve a 2-up advantage that Love called "pivotal," in what was a tightly contested baptism by fire.

And Stricker, as Couples had expected, was the perfect match for a player so talented he looks to become a mainstay of Presidents Cups to come.

"He came up to me, and said, I know you've got the nerves going but hey, let's start playing some golf now," Spieth said. "He was extremely supportive and helpful in getting me going. Made a putt on 6 and then we were both rolling from there."

Spieth and Stricker ended up making 14 birdies while the Internationals had nine.

"They played great together," Love said. "It just took them a few holes to kind of calm down. I could even see it in his swing. He birdied 6 but he didn't hit the greatest shot in there. You could tell he was uncomfortable in the beginning. But, boy, in the middle of the round, he was ready to go."

Stricker played in his first Presidents Cup back in 1996 -- when Spieth was 3 years old -- but he can still remember what it felt like to try to calm that racing heartbeat. He also knew what he had to do.

"I knew what kind of nerves Jordan was going to be dealing with," he said. "I was in a similar spot a ... long time ago but it's a tough situation, and I thought the pressure was on me to come out and play well, and try to make things easy for him, knowing what he was going to be facing throughout the day."

Spieth was quick to point out that to be nervous shouldn't always have a negative connotation. The really great players, and he appears destined to be one, can often channel those nerves into positive energy.

"So when I say nerves, it didn't necessarily mean that it forced me to play bad in a sense," Spieth said. "I mean, I was out of a couple holes, but I hit some good shots, too. I think once Steve made his third birdie on the first five holes, right then and there, I was like, all right, he's got my back, there's no need to worry anymore, and (I) made a putt on the next hole.

"Once you make a putt, I think for everybody, it settles you down a little bit and you get a little confidence."

And that was all Spieth needed.