BROOKLINE, Mass. – Forty minutes before their tee times, I posted up to watch Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth on the driving range. Two U.S. Open champions in pursuit of breaking their major slumps at The Country Club. And there was a notable contrast in the way McIlroy and Spieth warmed up.
Both McIlroy and Spieth grabbed what would be the equivalent of a standard bucket of balls at your local driving range. McIlroy went right into his routine of hitting the ball no more than 20 yards on his first few swings and gradually worked his swing speed up with each ball. He couldn’t have looked more calm, cool, and collected. McIlroy is clearly a golfer who has his swing under control.
Spieth was a little slower to start hitting. First, his caddie Michael Greller set up his launch monitor and tossed an alignment stick in the ground with a towel on top. He was ready to grind. Before even hitting a ball, he was already practicing his backswing routine and finding feels. It’s very apparent Spieth would like to have eyeballs on the back and both sides of his head. He’s always trying to get a peek at his swing from every angle.
About five minutes in, Spieth started working with his wedge in a similar matter to McIlroy.
It took Rory 10-15 swings before he set up his launch monitor. McIlroy goes about his business as if his launch monitor isn’t even there. Maybe an occasional peek, but that’s about it. There’s no mechanical work or a “feels” situation going on over there. Rory is taking nice, smooth full iron swings and attentively watching until each shot lands. There’s a significant pause before each swing. He steps away and uses a rag after every few shots. It appears he’s doing this to force himself to be patient as opposed to rapid-firing balls. As he switches to long irons, he begins aiming at different flag sticks with each club. Every swing has a desired final target.
While McIlroy is aiming at straight targets and playing his high draw with each swing, Spieth takes a different approach. He’s taking lower ball flights and aiming at targets on the other side of the range. And after each swing, Spieth intently waits for launch monitor numbers to display. Before balls even land, he’s hovering over it at times. Spieth put in longer work than McIlroy with wedges and short irons before finally shifting gears. He doesn’t reset after each swing as often. Many times he’s sliding the next ball over before the last even settles and is much more focused on finding his feel.
There’s a lot more creative practice going on with Spieth. He’s trying to hit a variety of ball flights and shot shapes with irons. Spieth is preparing himself for any situation he might find.
I didn’t recall McIlroy saying a single word during this stretch. Spieth said a lot of words. Mostly to himself. Occasionally he makes rhetorical comments or asks questions to Greller that don’t get much response. He’s simply a sounding board.
Finally, the woods and drivers came out. Rory is methodical with his woods and driver routine. Every swing has a full setup process before going full send. It’s the most beautiful thing I watched on the range all week. Even with 3-wood and driver McIlroy rarely checks the launch monitor. At least for today, it’s merely serving as a prop and the occasional reassurance. McIlroy might have hit 10 shots over this span. He was really focused on making each of these swings matter.
It’s not fair watching anyone hit driver next to McIlroy on the range. While McIlroy’s swing looked smooth as ever, Spieth continued to go through his “feels” pre-shot routine even more than with irons. The time spent over the ball before each swing is significantly longer, and Spieth lives and dies with each swing. He intently focuses on ball flights and statistical data from the launch monitor. If there’s a mishit, Spieth has a face of disappointment you don’t see on most anyone else throughout the range. Every swing and feeling means so much to him. The occasional club twirl and smirk creep through when he’s satisfied.
McIlroy smokes a few final drives before he goes to the putting green. Brad Faxon has been spending time with McIlroy to revamp his putting stroke. Upon arrival, McIlroy takes one ball out of his bag and begins to practice putts from 20-to-40 feet. No matter where the ball finishes, McIlroy is sure to putt-out on his desired cup. He’s shifted into game mode and not giving himself the gimme luxury. McIlroy bounces around on the green to find different breaks and up-and-down lies to get a full experience in before the first tee. After seven practice putts (all of which finished as two-putts), McIlroy struts over to the first tee.
Spieth looks mentally exhausted by the time his range session is complete. I know I was trying to keep up with his level of focus. There’s a subdued facial expression on Spieth’s face before one last flushed drive. I have to imagine Spieth spent plenty of time on the putting green ahead of time since his spot on the range was just a short walk over to No. 10, where he was teeing off to start. Spieth looked ready for another battle with himself and the course.
While it’s fun to watch Rory in all his glory, I gravitated toward the Spieth drama — which plays out even on the driving range. It was a reminder that there’s more than one way to prepare for — and win — a major championship.
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