Jordan Spieth is going to be fine. The kid is too smart not to figure this out, and he has too much talent and desire not to apply the lessons. At the tender age of 20, Spieth has all the time in the world. But watching him lose his way on Sunday at the Players was particularly troubling because it came hard on the heels of his final-round fade at Augusta National. It’s asking a lot for a player to win either of these tournaments in his first go-around, given the institutional knowledge both courses demand, to say nothing of the pressure of such grand stages.
But Spieth, who since the start of last year has climbed from 810th to eighth in the World Ranking, is not just any ol’ phenom—he’s the most accomplished young American to come along since Tiger Woods, and his rookie year in 2013 was defined by late-game heroics and a steep learning curve. Spieth’s gift is such that he deserves to be judged by a different standard than other youngsters. The Masters and the Players were a chance for him to do something historic, and the hard truth is that his swing, putting stroke and mental game were not up to the task. Oh, he’ll win plenty before all is said and done, but on the continuum of gritty Texans, is he going to wind up closer to Justin Leonard (12 wins with one British Open) or Lee Trevino (29 W’s, six majors)? Failing to convert these precious opportunities is not a good portent.
Woods, as always, has to be part of the conversation. By winning his first major at 21 he set a prohibitively high standard. A handier comparison is Rory McIlroy, who imploded on Masters Sunday in 2011 but found redemption two months later by winning the U.S. Open at 22. “I don’t want to wait until the U.S. Open,” Spieth said on Sunday night, minutes after tying for fourth, his eighth top five showing in 45 events as a pro. He was looking ahead to this week’s Byron Nelson, the tournament at which he first turned heads as a 16-year-old high school junior who contended in the final round before finishing 16th. This hometown event is meaningful to Spieth, but it’s major championships that matter, as he is well aware. If he can pick off one of this summer’s three majors, the Sunday struggles at the Masters and the Players will be remembered as nothing more than mild growing pains. However, it can’t be taken for granted that he’ll regularly contend in the game’s biggest tournaments.
Sergio García was 19 when he nearly stole the 1999 PGA Championship, and it seemed like major-championship victories were a given. But it was three long years until he had another good chance, at Bethpage. He cracked under the strain and wasn’t in the mix again on a major Sunday until the 2006 British Open. By the time García missed a putt at the 72nd hole that would have won the ’07 British he seemed like a broken man. On Sunday he empathized with Spieth. “It’s difficult to win, and it gets harder when things stop going your way,” said García, who is 0 for 62 in the majors. “It’s the way it is. All Jordan can do is keep trying.”
Spieth gave it a tremendous effort over the first 54 holes of the Players, navigating the Stadium course with nary a bogey. (No other player had fewer than four over-par holes through three rounds.) Just as at Augusta, he came out flying on Sunday, with birdies at the 2nd and 4th holes, the latter giving him the outright lead. His bogeyless streak ended after an errant drive at number 5, but the tournament was lost in the middle of the round. Under pressure, Spieth has displayed a distressing tendency to hit quick hooks, and he uncorked a doozy on the par-3 8th hole. Walking off the tee, he couldn’t stop castigating himself: “Anywhere right is fine, just not there. You can’t get up and down from there. That’s the one place you can’t be, that’s impossible.” The ensuing bogey dropped him out of a tie for the lead.
On the par-5th 9th, Spieth went for the green from 260 yards out even though he said he needed a “perfect” shot to get home. He came up three paces short, drawing a nasty lie in the rough and taking a deflating par, which left him two back when Martin Kaymer birdied from a greenside bunker. On the 10th hole, Spieth’s hard draw flew all the way to the flag and took a crazy carom left, a bad break that left him “flabbergasted.” Bogey, three back. After a “brain-dead” three-putt at 14, Spieth fell five back and had given up the ghost.
He is an intensely competitive personality and afterward was sizzling even as he politely answered questions. Spieth tried to pay lip service to the big picture but admitted, “I’m not mature enough to be extremely positive.” Then he added, “I will be in about an hour.”
Kids grow up so fast these days. Spieth understands better than most that to be a transcendent player, it helps to start young. He’s now on the clock.