Spieth and Greller Win, Lose, and Draw Together

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There are few dynamics in the universe as potent as a top tour pro and his or her caddy: songwriter and lyricist, maybe; POTUS and Veep, sometimes; superhero and sidekick, for sure. On tour, the duos are legendary: Crenshaw and Carl, Phil and Bones, Tiger and Fluff, Tiger and Stevie, Tiger and … ah well, you get the picture.  When it clicks, it can be worth millions. When it doesn’t, the sparks and Twitter fallouts fly.

What’s that under the bus?

Just last week, the world stole a glimpse into the inner workings of the game’s most popular bill – Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller. After posting an uncharacteristic 73 on Sunday to close out the tourney seven back, Spieth told ESPN, “Really poor from both me and Michael today. Our decisions cost us a few shots early and all the momentum. We both get the credit when things are going good, and we’re going to take the fall today.”

I know, I know — sounds pretty benign, and it is. “Poor” for Spieth is four straight Top-20s and contending on Sundays. And it’s widely known that Spieth and Greller have an amazing connection as friends and as the sport’s most successful tandem at the moment. But the comments provide a fascinating look into their on-course rapport, what all goes into course management decisions, and what feelings rise to the surface when the scores slip away.

Meeting of the minds

Their origin story is one we all know by now because it’s straight out of Disney – Greller, a 6th-grade math teacher who volunteer caddied during summers, just happened to default onto Spieth’s bag at the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur. After winning there, and eventually taking low amateur together at the 2012 U.S. Open, Spieth offered Greller a job – what must have seemed at the time like a “nice” opportunity. I’m not sure either of them truly knew just how earth-shaking that original handshake was.

Sure, Spieth makes all the big swings, but Greller manages the mood swings, the probabilities, the angles, the psyche. It would be a fascinating experiment to see the pros carry their own bags, weigh their own approaches, coddle their own egos. But the importance of a caddy cannot be underestimated, especially in the current, post-Tiger state of golf, where the stars of the game aren’t just range-famous: they’re moguls; they’re brands; they’re icons. Winning big can be isolating, it can intensify pressures and temptations, but you can usually count the caddy among that trusted inner circle, especially so with Spieth and Greller.

You and me, and me and you.

Spieth has always shared credit for his staggering success with his right-hand man, even going so far as to constantly refer to his play in terms of “we” and to golf in general as a team sport. At the 2015 PGA Championship, Spieth was quoted as saying, “I have Michael with me on the course. He’s the one that’s a part of each decision that we make as far as preparing for what we do … I believe that on and off the course, it’s not just me.”

High praise, indeed, from the best golfer in the world.

By most estimates, Greller shares significantly in the purses too, having earned upwards of $2 million in 2015 tournament winnings alone. That would be good enough for 39th on the 2015 money list (more than, ahem, Tiger, and many, many others). So, it makes sense that the duo shares in the coming up short, too.

Caddies calculate yardages to the foot, read greens to the centimeter, navigate tendencies and course conditions and sucker pins. One wrong choice from them can easily lead to bogeys, or even worse, it can shake their player’s confidence in their teamwork and their game. Conversely, of course, the right choice, well, that can seal the deal.

Hot mic!

Half of the fun in telecasts, and especially in witnessing it in person, is hearing pros discuss that strategy with their caddies – gauging winds, considering options, taking angles, reading breaks, minimizing struggles, shifting quickly from steady to crafty to aggressive and back. Greller is often caught by the mics telling Spieth, “paint that picture,” or “you got this,” or, at least at Augusta, “Carl says ….”

It’s also a fact that Spieth is going to continue to run up against the expectations that hold him to an inhuman standard. Yes, his 2015 was storybook, insanely dominant, and one of the best seasons in golf history. And yes, Spieth and Rory can be Tiger-esque in their dominance when they’ve got their full games primed. But maintaining that game year over year, from Florida Swing to the FedEx Cup and beyond, takes more than that. It takes obsessiveness bordering on the insane. It takes full life commitment. It takes an entire team on board with a common goal. It takes, dare we say it, a top-shelf Yoda/therapist/conscience/caddy.

Buckle up

So, we’ll have to excuse Jordan when he bristles at (social) media because it’s dumbfounded how he could possibly, ever in his life, shoot over par. I’m sure he had no intention of pulling Greller in under the bus with him. Or maybe he did. After all, in Spieth’s world, golf really is a team sport, and regardless of which way the winds are blowing, he and Greller are in this thing together.

All mid-March 73s aside, the rest of us had better buckle up, because hope springs eternal, 2015 was no fluke, and this dynamic duo is only getting started. See: The Masters this week.

James Lower
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