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Jordan Spieth Launches His Star With Record-Setting Masters

Spieth Win Means Golf's Next Great Rivalry Has Arrived
Arnie had Jack. Tiger had Phil. And after Jordan Spieth's victory in the 2015 Masters, Jeff Ritter says that Rory McIlroy finally has met his match. 

The apple-cheeked new face of American golf has a nine o'clock bedtime, drives a 2008 Yukon with more than 100,000 miles on it and dates his high school sweetheart. He volunteers in the classroom of his younger sister, who is on the autism spectrum, and addresses his elders deferentially ("Hello, Mr. O'Meara") even when he is obliterating the field at Augusta National. The only time Jordan Spieth is remotely disrespectful is when he's barking instructions to his golf ball; the poor thing was so frightened, it spent all of Masters week diving into a hole. On Sunday evening, after Spieth's record-smashing performance, a dozen of his friends gathered outside the clubhouse and had a laugh imagining what Spieth (rhymes with good teeth) might serve at next year's champions dinner. "Probably something bland, like his life," said lifelong pal Jeff Schoettmer. "I'm thinking a piece of dry chicken and a glass of milk."

Spieth may in fact be the world's oldest 21-year-old -- the joke on Tour is that he's so mature his hairline had no choice but to recede prematurely. For all of his imaginative shotmaking and spectacular putting, the defining trait of his victory was the serenity displayed by this old soul. "His composure is Bernhard Langer-like, which is incredible for 21," says Tour sage Geoff Ogilvy. "That's his x-factor."

In becoming the first wire-to-wire winner in the Masters in 39 years, Spieth had to block out myriad distractions. As usual, he overachieved. After he finished 18 under par on rounds of 64-66-70-70, he was asked how it felt to share one of golf's most hallowed records: Tiger Woods's Masters mark of 270, set during his iconic 1997 victory. Spieth's baby blue eyes bugged out ever so slightly. "Oh, is that what it was?" he said. "I didn't know." Makes sense, since Spieth has always preferred to make history, not study it. At Jesuit Prep in Dallas, he won three state championships and twice took the U.S. Junior; Woods is the only other player to win that national championship multiple times. As a freshman at Texas in 2012, Spieth led the Longhorns to their first national championship in 40 years. Competitiveness is in his DNA: His father, Shawn, was a pitcher and a first baseman at Lehigh; his mom, Chris, played basketball and field hockey for Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa. Younger brother Steven is a 6'6" sophomore guard at Brown who this season averaged 9.9 points and 4.7 rebounds.

But Spieth's ferocious drive is a product of nurture as well as nature. He grew up playing on the same teams as Schoettmer -- a linebacker who last year led North Carolina with 74 tackles -- and Brian Wetzel, a receiver with 32 career touchdowns at Fordham. Spieth was a lefty shooting guard with three-point range and a quarterback who rarely ducked out-of-bounds. "He liked to take the hit," says Schoettmer. Before focusing on golf at age 12, the year he shot a 62, Spieth was best at baseball, in which he was a rangy outfielder and a pitcher with a filthy curveball and effective changeup. "He didn't throw hard, but he had great location and he knew how to pitch and how to compete," says Schoettmer. "It's so relevant to his golf game." Spieth can still offer play-by-play from many of the championship games of his youth. "We hardly ever lost," he says. "Winning has been a big part of my life since I was five years old."

Spieth was the PGA Tour's 2013 Rookie of the Year thanks largely to a victory at the John Deere Classic in which he got into a playoff by jarring a bunker shot on the 72nd hole. But last year he was, in his words, "pushing too hard for victories. I got in my own way." This included his audacious Masters debut. He led by two strokes with 11 holes to play but made a series of nervy mistakes and got run over by Bubba Watson. "I played pretty much the entire round feeling different than I've ever felt on the golf course," Spieth says. He was plagued by Sunday stumbles throughout the rest of the season, but in November at the Australian Open he closed with one of the rounds of the year, a 63 on a blustery day to blow away a world-class field. "Just had a level of patience I had not had when I was in contention," Spieth says. Next came a 10-shot romp at the Hero World Challenge in Windermere, Fla., and he carried the momentum into Augusta, with a win and two seconds in his previous three starts.

He was so fazed by the pressure of being a pretournament favorite that he opened with a 64, one stroke off the Masters record. The next morning Spieth backed it up with a 66 that broke the spirit of every other guy in the field. World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, 25, had been the story coming in, as he was going for his third straight major championship victory and the missing piece of the Grand Slam, but by the time he teed off on Friday he was 12 back. After a woe-is-me 40 on the front nine, McIlroy scorched the next 45 holes in 15 under but still came up six shots short, in fourth place.

Spieth's 36-hole score of 130 was a tournament record and left him with a five-stroke lead over Charley Hoffman. The tributes poured in. Dan Jenkins, a fellow Texan who at 85 is the dean of American sportswriters, tweeted, "Jordan Spieth might be the perfect Texas pro: the focus and will of Hogan, the likability of Nelson, and the putting stroke of Crenshaw."

As it turned out, Ben Crenshaw was competing in his 44th and final Masters, and he played a passing-of-the-torch practice round with Spieth, whom he has long mentored. Caddies are second only to bartenders as observers of human nature, and Crenshaw's longtime Augusta looper, Carl Jackson, had an insightful take on the kid: "Jordan has the same moxie as Ben, the same fire in the belly. They both got a heart as big as Texas. They come from real strong families. They both have good character and integrity, and that gives a man strength on the golf course. You got to exude that attitude of gratitude."

Spieth's enlarged perspective comes by way of his sister, Ellie, 14, who was born with a neurological disorder and spent the first month of her life in the NICU. Jordan visited her every day. "He saw firsthand how some of those kids never got to go home," says Shawn. Even as he became everybody's All-American, Jordan realized that, as he says, "in my family it's never been about me." He has set up a foundation to benefit special-needs children. "Ellie inspires Jordan, she grounds him, she makes it easy for him to detach from the artificial world of tournament golf," says swing coach Cameron McCormick, who began ministering to Spieth when he was 12. "She's a big key to who he is as a person."

Photo:

Shawn Spieth was waiting at 18 with a hug for his son.

If Spieth's self-identity is remarkably well formed, the man he is now linked with in Masters lore arrived in Augusta trying to find himself, yet again. Woods was ending a two-month exile to find a cure for his chip-yips. He had been holed up at the Medalist Club, in Hope Sound, Fla., hiding in plain sight, the subject of endless furtive glances, in the same manner passing motorists pretend not to be titillated by roadside wreckage. "I have friends who are members there who say two weeks ago he was blading chips across the greens," former Tour player Brad Faxon said during Masters week. "A friend of mine was out playing and stopped to watch him chip. Tiger hit a couple of O.K. ones, looked up and saw he was being watched, and he packed up and went to another hole!"

Yet when the bell rang at Augusta, Woods showed no fragility around the greens, though his ball-striking was clearly rusty during an opening 73. He followed with rounds of 69 and 68 -- remarkably, the first time since his victory a decade ago that he has broken 70 in consecutive Masters rounds. The performance was a monument to Woods's grit, and in a weird way as impressive as any of his victories.

His move up the leader board added a little frisson to a third round that was otherwise subdued by Spieth's relentlessly steady golf. That is, until a sloppy double bogey on the 17th hole cut his lead from six strokes to four. Spieth then missed on the short side on 18, and for the first time all week looked vulnerable. But he summoned a dangerous flop shot -- "That just took some guts," he said, in what passes for braggadocio -- and then poured in "one of the bigger putts I've ever hit," a seven-footer for par. Spieth birdied two of the first three holes in the final round, and the rest of Sunday was mostly a coronation. But he didn't let himself think about the victory until after he made a downhill eight-footer on the 16th hole that preserved his four-stroke lead over Justin Rose.

"I would call that the biggest putt I've ever hit," Spieth said. "Didn't care about my posture. Didn't care about the mechanics. It was all feel-based."

This is not just a putting philosophy; it imbues his entire game. He has a quirky grip -- the left index finger rides on top of the right hand and interlocks slightly with the right pinkie -- and some idiosyncratic moves in his swing. (Johnny Miller, for one, is obsessed with how Spieth's left arm occasionally bends on his takeaway). But it all works well enough that he was second in the field in greens in regulation (75%). More to the point, Spieth has a bedrock belief in what he is doing.

"A lot of guys are looking around for the next piece of information so they can make things more complicated," says Faxon. "He's always looking to make things simpler."

Spieth is chasing greatness as hard as McIlroy, minus the self-aggrandizing shirtless photo shoots. He looks slender, but over the last year and a half he has been living in the gym. Spieth's trainer, Damon Goddard, calls him "country strong" and says he can deadlift 380 pounds. Through an emphasis on the core muscles and lower body, Spieth is trying to maintain a clubhead speed of 115.3 mph, which has pushed him from 89th to 63rd on Tour in driving distance, at 292.5 yards a pop.

Spieth has also begun having blood work done to fine-tune his diet, which is why on the course he now snacks on walnuts instead of cashews and dried blueberries rather than raisins. His meals are heavy on vegetables, even though he says he "flat-out hates" them. For every round he has a prescribed amount of water to drink -- at the sunbaked Texas Open it was 60 ounces per nine holes -- and during tournament weeks Goddard assigns him a mandatory bedtime based on his fluctuating fatigue. For Masters week it was 9 p.m., though because of a late tee time Spieth got a dispensation on Saturday to stay up and watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a low-brow comedy that he regrettably calls "one of the greatest movies in the world."

Photo:

Bubba Watson welcomed Spieth to an exclusive club.

Clearly, the kids are running things now. (On Sunday, Woods got spanked 66--73 by his playing partner, McIlroy, and 44-year-old Phil Mickelson was slow out of the gate before rallying to tie Rose for second.) The Rory & Jordan Show, starring two megatalents who not only top the World Ranking but are also immensely likable characters, is already a hit, as CBS's Masters ratings on Saturday and Sunday were up 48% and 23% over last year. Among those watching at home in Dallas on Sunday was Kelly Kraft, a tour player and frequent foil in casual games with Spieth. Kraft was impressed by his pal's play at Augusta National but says it's not even close to Spieth's greatest putting performance. No, that came over the winter, when the two pegged it on three consecutive days, warming up by playing "$100 make 'ems" on the practice green. "We pick out the longest, hardest putts we can find," Kraft says. "I'm talking 80 or 100 feet with tons of break. Day one, Jordan drops his first ball and makes the putt, and just like that I'm out a hundred bucks. Second day, first ball, he makes it again. That's impossible. Day three, he drops a ball and makes it again on the first try. That's not even human."

Kraft paused and then offered what should serve as a warning to the rest of the golf world: "I don't putt against Jordan for money anymore."

This article appeared in the April 20, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Click here for instant access to this week's issue.

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