Full Spieth Ahead

AUGUSTA, Ga. – At the end of every Masters, an official from Augusta National will ask the newly crowned champion to “please go over your round.” This, like so many Masters things, is a tradition from a simpler time, before ShotLink disseminated on the Internet every possible scoring statistic for every golfer. Before television had 18-hole coverage, back when people could not actually see what the golfers had done.

In any case, this has become one of the first duties of a Masters champion: To sit at the microphone and mindlessly recite what shots he hit on every hole of his final round. The “going-over-the-round” oration tends to be a perfunctory 90-second affair, with the champion in his new green jacket impatiently reciting, “OK, on the first hole, driver, eight-iron, two putts. On the second hole, driver, 4-iron, hit a chip to 10-feet, made birdie. On the third hole …”

Jordan Spieth, of course, turned his round review into a long and joyous reenactment of what was “probably the best day of my life.” Because, you see, Jordan Spieth is like that.

“Michael (Greller, Spieth’s caddie) and I were joking at the first tee today,” Spieth said. “The University of Texas team is in Pasatiempo, another great Alistair MacKenzie (golf course). Actually I think he’s buried there.”*

(* – To interrupt for a moment: Spieth mostlsy got this right. MacKenzie, the great golf course architect who designed Augusta National and died two months before the first Masters, did have his ashes spread over Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Fe, California.)

“Anyway,” Spieth continued, “they are at Pasatiempo, and I would be a senior with the team right now. Michael said, ‘Aren’t you glad you are not at Pasatiempo now?’ Actually, he said, ‘Face it, aren’t you glad you’re here instead of there?’ That kind of sums it up.

“I had a 3-wood off No. 1 tee box. Then I had a good, kind of smooth, 9-iron into the green. Tried to bleed a little fade up there. I got it to where I wanted. Then I putted it where I wanted to; it was a straight putt coming right back up the hill. Justin obviously made his putt to start, so it was really nice to drop one on top of his to start the round.”

That was just Spieth’s description of the first hole. He did 17 more holes just like it.

* * *

Spieth on his bogey at No. 7: “I hit driver right again. Then I hit a 6-iron through a little gap in the trees, which may not have been the smartest move but I didn’t really like any other options at that point. I got a bit unlucky because if the ball went into either of the sand traps there, it would have been a pretty easy up-and-down. Instead, it’s in between (the bunkers) and I don’t have a stance. I’d be interested to see a picture of that. Half my feet were dangling over the bunker.

“I was just standing there on my toes, and I actually hit a really good pitch to get it to makeable length. It’s just a tough putt. … It’s a feel-based putt. I just didn’t quite hit it hard enough to hold its line. So that was two bogeys in three holes. I was disappointed at that time.”

* * *

We haven’t seen a golfer quite like Spieth before. And it’s easy to get carried away. Every time a golfer puts together a sort-of-staggering performance like Spieth did at this year’s Masters, there’s a hunger to declare him the next big thing. We go overboard. Golf is a sport vitalized and energized by its stars; when there aren’t players at the top who animate the imagination, the whole sport feels a bit lifeless. This wasn’t a problem in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s because Tiger Woods was such a force of nature. But it has been almost seven years since Woods won a major championship, and while his on-again, off-again, now-he’s-injured, now-he’s-playing-great thrill ride always makes news, golf fans have been desperate to find someone new to headline.

Think James Bond movies after Sean Connery.

So, let’s see here, Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship at 25. Webb Simpson was 27 when he took home the U.S. Open trophy. People tried to get excited about Jason Dufner for a while after he won the PGA. Martin Kaymer made mincemeat of Pinehurst No. 2 at the U.S. Open, and there was some thought he could dominate golf. Adam Scott, nicest guy in the world, won the Masters and he seemed to have sort of a cool Australian James Bond vibe. Jason Day? Ricky Fowler? Bubba Watson? Justin Rose? All of them have been called the next big thing.

Of course, the best bet to fill the Tiger void has long been Rory McIlroy, a brilliant young golfer with a wonderful personality. He is only 25, he’s the world’s No. 1 player and he has won four major championships already. He plays the game with a verve and power that should thrill everyone. But, to be blunt, there’s just something Tiger Woods had that McIlroy, through no fault of his own, can’t quite duplicate, at least in America. Maybe it is because McIlroy is from Northern Ireland. Maybe it is that Woods is utterly irreplaceable because he was a social force in addition to a golf force; he was, after all, an African-American dominating a sport that had long been closed off for African-Americans.

Or maybe it is this: No one since Tiger (and few before Tiger) has so willingly and forcefully grabbed that No. 1 spot in the world. It’s a tough job. Sure, there’s good money in it and lots of glory – Late-night talk shows! Magazine covers! Commercials! Parties with celebrities! — but you can get plenty of that stuff being the No. 17 or No. 23 or No. 35 golfer in the world too. And that’s easier. At No. 1, you are always the focus. You get the most autograph requests, the most selfie requests, the most interview requests. The other golfers want to beat you first. Whatever you say makes news. Wherever you go, you carry the game with you.

And, most just don’t want all that. Everybody wants to be James Bond, but nobody wants to get shot at all the time. I will always remember the delightful Nick Price — after he won two major championships and was sort of that unofficial No. 1 golfer in the world – coming to the Masters unsure that he even wanted to win the green jacket. He just didn’t want his life to get even crazier.

Tiger’s hunger to be the greatest golfer ever was so overpowering that he never had any doubts what he wanted: No. 1 was the ONLY place to be. There haven’t been many who have so deeply craved to be on top of the world. Even McIlroy seems to have struggled with it at times as his personal life and various misjudgments have been splayed in stories across the world.

And Jordan Spieth? Can he handle how his life is about to change? Beyond that: Does he want – really want – the magnificence and responsibility that comes with being the best? Well, it sure sounds like it.

“The ultimate goal that I have mentioned, I think, each week,” he said, “is to try and become the No. 1 player in the world. … All in all, (winning the Masters) is really cool. This isn’t an honor that’s carried lightly. The members of Augusta National and everyone who partakes in the Masters demands the highest quality on and off the course from their champions. I’m ready to carry that baton.”

* * *

Spieth on his birdie at No. 13: “I hit 3-wood, and got a nice little hook on the ball and a really good bounce to get up there so I could hit a comfortable 5-iron in. I think those shots at 13 were the two biggest shots I’ve ever hit in my life. I was coming off a 3-putt, and Justin (Rose) was in a pretty good spot off that tee. I needed to do something. I needed to birdie that hole because otherwise I think I would have dropped.

“So I missed the 5-iron a little. I was trying to go a little left and just kind of hit it straight, kind of hit it a little off the toe. I was yelling, “Get up! Get up!” When it landed, from my angle, I thought it hit short and went in the water. All of a sudden the roar came up. When I walked up I saw the pitch mark was right on that little peninsula. And there was another moment where I thought, ‘This could be destiny.’”

* * *

The marvel of Jordan Spieth is that he is, at this moment of his life, a blend of wise-beyond-his-years sensibleness and youthful wonder. One minute, under the most intense pressure, he will be sinking an utterly impossible putt on greens that are like formica. The next minute, he will be talking about the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” One minute, he is charming everyone with his unsual blend of humility and confidence; the next he’s leaving dirty dishes all over his house. As a father, I sometimes will see a young person and wish I could talk to his or her parents just to ask: “How did you do that? How did you raise such a cool kid?”

Spieth says that his grounded nature was forged by the relationship with his younger sister, Ellie, who has a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum. She inspires him. She also reminds him constantly of what’s really important. A week before the Masters, in Houston, he lost in a playoff. He saw it through Ellie’s eyes; at the end of each day she would ask him if he had won. And through her eyes, Spieth realized his week could be summed up in five words: “Not yet. Not yet. No.’”

He took those five words with him to Augusta and did all sorts of remarkable things – youngest player to lead after the first round, lowest 36-hole score ever at a major championship, lowest 54-hole score ever at the Masters, most birdies at the Masters (28) – but the most impressive feat of all might not have been an actual record. He became the first golfer in almost 40 years to lead the tournament wire-to-wire. The last was Raymond Floyd in 1976 and before that it was Jack Nicklaus in 1972 and before that it was Arnold Palmer in 1960.

But even those three would concede that going wire-to-wire now is a much different deal. The intense pressure that comes from leading the Masters in today’s 24-hour news frenzy simply does not compare to years ago. Spieth said he slept pretty well the first night he had the lead. He slept considerably worse the second night. He hardly slept at all the third. He kept promising himself that he would not look at leaderboards; but he could not help but sneak a few peeks. He kept telling himself not to let the roars of the crowd distract him, but it is not easy to turn off your hearing, especially when you are as alert and present as Jordan Spieth.

Still, he endured. More than that, he dominated. His golf game is a symphony of small things done well. He does not hit it very far, he does not always hit it straight, he will occasionally falter in shots around the green. But he has a genius for hitting the right shot at the right time, which is what Nicklaus says professional golf is all about. And nobody putts like this guy.

“He has no weaknesses,” said Phil Mickelson, who could not quite find a way to rattle the kid on Sunday. “He doesn’t overpower the golf course, but he plays the course strategically well. He plays all the shots properly. And he has the ability to focus and see things clearly when the pressure is on and perform at his best … that’s something you really can’t teach.

* * *

Spieth on No. 18: “My driver wasn’t what I wanted it to be today. … But I got it over in the pine straw, and I knew I could get a 5-iron at least to into the bunker. If it gets into the bunker, then I can blast it out on to the green. … It curved to a perfect spot and at that point I knew I had won the tournament.

“After I got that 5-iron out, I knew. I had kept my head down before that. I was enjoying the ride and intensity of the round because that’s what we played for. But it didn’t creep into my mind that I had won the tournament until I hit that second shot on 18 and walked up there. And I said to Michael, ‘Mike, I think we just did it.’ He says, ‘No, you haven’t. Don’t say that. Just go up there and hit the chip.’ That was perfect. That’s what he should say there.

“I’ll never forget watching the front of the hole as the last tap-in went in the front edge. There was no need for crazy celebrations. At that point, I was just really, really pleased with the whole week, being on top, being able to stay on top, being able to conquer my favorite tournament in the world.”

* * *

Jordan Spieth took 2,593 words to go over his round. To give you a comparison, the Gettysburg Address is 272 words. Spieth’s round review was a few more words than Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and only about 40 words less than Mark Twain’s famous “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Spieth’s short story was every bit as enjoyable. You sensed that he never wanted to stop talking about it. And isn’t that the most human thing? Don’t we all want to talk and talk about our best dreams?

In the end, Mickelson got it right: Spieth just has this knack for seeing things clearly. How can someone so young have that ability? How far can it take him? How much fun will it be to watch him and McIlroy and all those prodigies and perhaps even a revitalized Tiger Woods play for that spot on top of the world? How good can this kid be?

These are open questions. But when the Masters ended — and Jordan hugged his father Shawn, then his mother Chris, then his brother Steven, then his high-school sweetheart Annie Verret and then walked back on to the green to applaud the crowd that was applauding him – I’m willing to wager that across America my wife Margo wasn’t the only person crying.

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