With Michael Phelps Watching, Jordan Spieth Struggles a…

“You’re an American hero, Mr. Phelps!” yelled one fan. Another cried, “There goes the G.O.A.T.,” referring to the greatest of all time. Several others referred to Phelps’s recent “race” against a computer-generated image of a great white shark.

“I’m glad you didn’t get eaten by the shark,” yelled one man, leading Phelps’s wife to pipe up with, “Me, too!”

Phelps slowed to sign autographs and pose for photos, but his focus was firmly on Spieth, who missed a few of his signature long putts in his round of one-over-par 72. He was five strokes off the pace set by Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark. Koepka was in the group of golfers one shot behind Olesen.

“Given it’s the first round, I know I’m still in it,” Spieth said, “but I know that tomorrow’s round becomes that much more important.”

For Phelps, Thursday at Quail Hollow reminded him of the first 50 meters of his signature swim race, the 200-meter butterfly. One lap around the course did not a winner make, but start too slow, and the prize could be lost.

Phelps saw much that he liked when Spieth, who started on the course’s more difficult back nine, completed his first nine at par despite fighting his putter. After Spieth missed his third birdie putt in the 12-to 16-foot range, Phelps muttered, “Where were those misses when we played?”

He explained that during Spieth’s trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, before the British Open, where the photograph that Greller referred to was taken, Phelps and a few of his friends played a round at El Dorado Golf Club against Spieth and a few of his friends.

“He made every putt around 20 feet, and was seven under after nine,” Phelps said.

Thursday was a different story. Phelps took note of Spieth’s glancing over at Greller in frustration as the missed putts mounted. He watched as Spieth hit his approach shot at the par-4 first hole in a greenside bunker and pirouette in frustration, yelling, “Dang it.” He commiserated when Spieth hit his next shot out of the sand to 10 feet and missed the par putt.

On the third hole, Spieth striped a drive 319 yards, and Phelps, who was nearby, said, in a reference to his 1-year-old son, “Boomer would have liked that one.” That elicited a smile from Spieth, who has known Phelps since February, when they played together in the Phoenix Open pro-am.

At a preround dinner at Phelps’s Scottsdale home and during their round of golf the next day, they realized they had more in common than their Under Armour global brand ambassadorships.

Phelps, who has become an enthusiastic golfer in retirement, bonded with Spieth and with Greller, who engaged him in conversation about his mental process: How did he bounce back from a disappointing race or bad meets? What did Phelps tell himself when nothing was going right?

Phelps interpreted the subtext of Greller’s questions as, “What do I need to do to get in Jordan’s head when he’s struggling?”

Phelps told Greller that because he spent more time with Spieth than anyone, he was best suited to know which buttons to push and when to push them. Greller had the answers within him; he simply needed to follow his instincts.

Six months later, Phelps transmitted a condensed version of that conversation to Greller on the walk from the fourth green to the fifth tee. After they exchanged fist bumps, Phelps said, “Trust it.”

Spieth’s certitude appeared to be ebbing when he made bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6. On the seventh tee, with three holes to play, Greller spoke up. “Let’s get three looks at birdie,” he told Spieth, “and see what happens.”

What happened next was this: a tap-in birdie at the par-5 seventh after Spieth went for the green in 2 with his hybrid club and his ball rolled just off the back of the putting surface; another birdie at No. 8 after Spieth pitched to 2 feet; and a long birdie putt at No. 9 that he narrowly missed.

On a day when Spieth’s putter was malfunctioning, Greller’s well-chosen, well-timed words were the key to salvaging the round and perhaps the week. By deflecting Spieth’s attention from his over-par score, Greller freed him to focus on each shot.

“If I were to finish par, par, par, I would have thrown myself out of the tournament,” said Spieth, who added: “Recognizing where we were on the golf course and what holes we had played and what holes were left was important in really zeroing in and hitting my targets at the finish line. If I was focused on my score, it might have been a different story.”

As Spieth came off the course and made his way to the scoring area, he passed Phelps, who was standing on the practice green waiting for Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy to tee off. They exchanged fist bumps. No words were necessary.

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