If you have lost any faith in Jordan Spieth’s golfing promise because he panicked on the back nine on Sunday at Augusta, took off a month, then missed the cut at the Players, we have a message for you:
COOL YOUR JETS, PEOPLE!
Spieth’s excellence as a golfer is rooted in two things above all: personal grit and extraordinary putting. He’s not going to lose the grit. It’s in his DNA. He eventually will lose the ability to make every 10-footer he faces. But that is most likely to be years from now, or not this year or next year, anyway. He’s 22.
My colleague Gary Van Sickle noted in a fine and recent piece that in the 15 times that Spieth and Jason Day have played together since last year’s U.S. Open, Day is 51 under par and Spieth is 16 under par. He concluded that Day’s best golf is better than Spieth’s best golf. I would respectfully disagree. More exciting, yes. Better, no.
In those 15 rounds, Day played some of the best golf of the post-Tiger era, and Spieth was either off or slightly off his game. I refer specifically to the last round of last year’s PGA Championship and the first two rounds at this year’s Players Championship. Day has an incredible life story, and what he’s been doing on the course since last year’s British Open is remarkable. Seven wins in his last 17 starts. Anybody who can drive it 385 down the middle with arms coming out of his shirt is going to look deeply impressive.
But just google the words a good putter is. The rest comes up automatically: a match for anyone. You know why that phrase is embedded in the culture of golf? Because it’s true. Just as drive for show, putt for dough has held up for about 100 years now.
Give Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III truth serum and ask them why they could not do, at any time in their careers, what Woods did in 2000, when he won the U.S. Open by 15 and the British Open by eight, among a slew of other gaudy achievements. This is the answer: They didn’t have Tiger’s level of grit, and they didn’t have his putting game. (Vijay Singh had the grit, but not the putting game.) In 2000, Woods essentially made every meaningful putt he looked at from 10 feet and in.
Jim Furyk, describing that period, once said, “When he had an eight-footer, he knocked it in dead center as if it was a two-footer.” What an image—the eight-footer as a tap-in. The only golfer since Woods to whom you could apply Furyk’s quote is Spieth. His stroke is perfect, as Woods’s once was. Day has been putting beautifully. But if he were a putting savant, that part of his game would have announced itself years ago, not months ago. What Spieth has with the putter cannot be taught. Three-time major champion Nick Price was a great putter for a short period when he hit it very close. That’s about where Day is now, and it’s a nice place to be.
In the Friday round at the Players, Spieth, a smart young man with beautiful manners, came up way short on a 119-yard shot, his second on the par-4 6th. When the ball landed, he said to Michael Greller, his faithful caddie, “That’s not even close to the right club. What are you thinking, dude?” At least, that's how Johnny Miller apparently heard it. In the broadcast booth, Miller said, “I thought it was a we thing.” It was an interesting and amusing observation, but not one with long legs – and maybe not even correct. It's hard to say for sure if it was "we" or "you." Yes, this is an illustration of how intense interest in Spieth is.
First of all, the player chooses the club and plays the shot. Second, Spieth might have caught the shot a touch heavy. Third, any round of golf has imperfect shots—even Ken Duke’s third-round 65 last week—and Spieth’s shot was just imperfect. (He has been struggling with his wedge play all year.) Fourth, you’re bound to get a little snippy when you’re one of the best players in the world and you’re right on the cut line in a big event and you’re playing like a guy trying to keep his card. Yes, Spieth showed a moment of frustration. It was a moment that revealed that no caddie-player relationship, like any marriage, is perfect. But it was just a moment.
Spieth tees it up in an era when the four major championships are venerated in ways they never have been before. It has made those four weeks more interesting and more meaningful and it has come at the expense of other top tournaments, including the Players Championship. We can thank (or not) Jack and Tiger for this development. Do not judge Spieth’s future in any way on the basis of his Augusta collapse and his inability to make the cut at the Players Championship. The Players will be south of a blip by the end of the summer. The 2016 Masters, at which Spieth was seeking to become the fourth player in the history of the event to win back-to-back, will someday be nothing more than an odd and interesting note in a long career, just as the 1959 Masters was for Arnold Palmer.
Arnold had won the ’58 Masters. He was tied for the lead through three rounds. On Sunday, he made a triple-bogey 6 on 12 and finished two shots behind Art Wall. It was one that got away from Palmer. Still, he managed to have a rich and fulfilling life, on and off the course.
O.K., it’s not a perfect comparison. In Palmer’s next start, in Houston, he finished third, which earned him $1,850. Which is $1,850 more than Spieth made last week. But the point is, as they say in baseball, it’s a long season. And if you’re lucky, a long career.