Jordan Spieth Is Just About Ready

The PGA has perhaps a bit more parity than it wants. Jordan Spieth looks just about ready to change that.
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Jordan Spieth is only 20 years old. You have probably heard this, as CBS repeatedly brought this fact up, and then put it in perspective on Sunday during the final round of the Masters as Spieth and Bubba Watson, the 35-year-old 2012 champion, battled for the right to pull on a frankly tacky green jacket.

Somewhere on the front nine we were given the inevitable reminder that Spieth cannot drink or rent a car. If the telecast up to that point had been any indication, a graphic listing all of the Masters winners since the 1930s that hadn’t been able to legally complete a transaction at a Hertz counter should have appeared on screen. We’d already learned that he was vying to become the first under-21 major winner since 1931, as well as the first golfer to win as a first-timer at Augusta since Fuzzy Zoeller did it in 1979. Oh, also: not only would Spieth break Tiger’s record as the youngest Masters champion ever, but he would do so 17 years after Tiger set the mark in 1997, which was in turn 17 years after Seve Ballesteros set the previous mark in 1980, who did it 17 years after a 23-year-old Jack Nicklaus set the mark before that in 1963. I’m fairly sure that Jim Nantz evoked Monday night’s Blood Moon lunar eclipse at some point. 

The overall effect was thuddingly clear: this was Spieth’s cosmic destiny. He was the chosen one. Nantz was whispering and practically frothing at the mouth at the same time.

The hype and historical contextualizing peaked after Spieth opened a two-shot lead on Watson heading into the 8th hole. Spieth had just carded his fourth birdie of the round, including a magical chip-in from the bunker on the 4th, and suddenly the possibility of Spieth actually winning became not just vaguely piquant in a TV Sports Factoid way, but very real.

It’s to Spieth’s credit that, improbable as that outcome would’ve been, it felt convincing throughout the Masters. Spieth’s beyond-his-years composure and confidence had been fawned over all weekend and, more importantly, he was making shot after shot. Maybe the often emotionally volatile Watson would have a repeat of his disastrous third round and Spieth would win comfortably. Both Spieth and the prospect of a victory seemed too good to be true—the flawless amateur career, the rapid ascent as a pro, the raw ability, the poise—and yet it was actually happening. Were we watching the next Jack, the next Tiger, the next all-time great making his first emphatic statement that history would be made, and continue being made? Somebody get Jim Nantz an oxygen tank.

***

A cycle of parity has defined the PGA Tour since Tiger, under greater duress than anyone knew at the time, plowed his Escalade into a fire hydrant around Thanksgiving in 2009. In the time since, there have been 16 majors and 14 different major winners, none of them named Eldrick Woods. And so, without the consent of golf’s mythmakers and storyline-crafters, the narrative shifted from Tiger’s dominance to the churning of a diffuse crop of up-and-coming 20-somethings, any of whom could win any given major and most of whom were so indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan as to be a sort of backhanded satirical slap at golf’s homogeneity. To all but die-hards, Rickie Fowler is probably the most exciting of these golfers, and that’s mostly because he tends to wear loud color combinations and a flat-brimmed hat. This is the state of things.

Most sports regard parity as an ideal, and plenty of golf people have talked about how great the “deep talent pool” is for the State Of The Game. This is maybe true, but definitely at least a little dishonest. In individual sports, both casual viewers and connoisseurs alike tend to value individual excellence above all else.

And why not? Virtuosity is the coin of the realm, here, and there aren’t any hometown loyalties chaining us down. The fun of it is watching the greats become great, be great, return to greatness. It’s why any major featuring Tiger Woods in his prime was appointment television, and why tennis is exponentially more exciting when Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray are paired up for a major final. The idea is to see a sort of greatness that is incommunicable except through a primary account—Jordan, Tiger, Federer—and to experience that moment of witness in a sort of worshipful watchfulness.

The idea that we’re watching such a talent develop is nearly just as exciting. Yet another spin of the roulette wheel of Rich Fratty White Guys In Slacks, all of whom are about as good as the next, is not nearly as compelling as being there to see Jordan Spieth win The Masters at 20, and having history bear out that it was not a fluke, and that we were present at the creation. At Augusta, we were almost there. All that seemed to be left to negotiate was the back nine on Sunday. That’s it. Just what is arguably the greatest mental crucible in all of sports.

But we, Spieth and the rest of us, didn’t even really make it to the back nine.

After the birdie on 7, Spieth bogeyed the par-5 8th, which Watson in turn birdied. Spieth then powered a drive down the fairway on 9, but his approach caught the green’s false front and slowly began an excruciating roll back down towards and finally into the fairway. He bogeyed, again. Watson birdied, again. It was a four-shot swing in two holes, and Spieth suddenly trailed by two.

Watson strode to the back nine with an almost creepy kind of dead-eyed zen focus and it was clear to all watching that Watson was probably going to win. He certainly didn’t look like a man that was going to collapse. He looked, actually, like the sort of fearsomely great golfer we hadn’t seen in some time.

After leaving his approach well short of the green on 10, Spieth tomahawk chopped his iron down into the Augusta fairway in frustration. This is maybe the time to bring up, again, that Jordan Spieth is not yet old enough to rent a car.

***

Sunday at The Masters was in many ways a microcosm of Spieth’s rise as a professional, which has been characterized by moments of unparalleled brilliance and promise and invariably followed by gentle comedowns from which he seems to rebound almost immediately. He’s never been down for long. He’s temperamental and expressive both physically and verbally, but no measure of petulance could come close to putting a dent in the confidence he has in his own ability to execute. Few 20-year-olds could believe in themselves this much and be right in that self-belief.

Time and again, Spieth falls down and gets up in a way that more chronologically mature players simply can’t. An errant tee shot that results in club-flailing and frustrated self-castigation will often be followed by a miraculous recovery and laser-sharp determination. Then Spieth might take the five-foot putt for granted, but come back on the next par-3 and leave his tee shot within six feet.

It’s mercurial, but it is also what learning looks like. That is, finally, what we watch when we watch Spieth: a huge talent finding his way as a PGA Tour professional, and reconciling his all-around skill set with the necessary patience and mental focus. It has, so far, played itself out from shot to shot and hole to hole and nine to nine, and from one tournament to the next, like an ebbing and flowing tide making its way higher and higher up the beach.

Viewed along normal standards, though, where it’s more typical for a pro to grind it out for years and years before maybe winning a PGA Tour event, some more forceful flood-based analogy would probably be a better way to describe the past year of Jordan Spieth’s career. He is getting better in increments, but he is doing it in a rush, going from having temporary status on the tour, to becoming the first teenager since 1931 to win a PGA Tour event (last July’s John Deere), to the Presidents Cup, to Rookie of the Year, and then on to dispelling any notion of a sophomore slump with four top-ten finishes in 2014’s first three months. His time leading the Masters on Sunday was a part of this natural and fully unnatural progression.

This sort of arc usually takes a career to complete, for those lucky enough ever to get there. Spieth has done it in about a year, and the progression has never felt anything but natural.

***

After Watson went up by two and Spieth chopped his iron into the fairway on 10, the end appeared to be in sight. What was supposed to follow, per the usual script, was some sort of variously humbling collapse, which would either become Hauntingly Significant or something that Spieth Triumphantly Overcame during some future Masters win. You know how these stories go. Everyone does.

And then Spieth saved par on 10 and held steady for the rest of what turned out to be an uneventful back nine. Watson was able to push the lead over Spieth from two to three, and as the final group strode up the 18th fairway the about-to-be two-time champion was able to relax and soak in the applause. Maybe ten feet behind Watson, Spieth walked with his caddy, witnessing exactly what it’s like to walk up 18 with The Masters in hand.

In post-round interviews Spieth spoke of how much it hurt to be so close, but also how hungry the experience made him. “I felt comfortable and I felt like my game held up and I think I’m ready to win a major,” he said. “And that’s a great feeling.” Another surge up the shore, then, and another recession and a gathering back. The U.S. Open tees off at Pinehurst on June 12. Spieth will not be able to rent a car or legally buy a beer by then, either.


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