Jordan Spieth Didn’t Win the Open, But So What? Spiethmania Is On!

July 22, 2015

Late on a Saturday night, in St. Andrews’ best upstairs Chinese eatery, four sportswriters tore into their crispy aromatic duck. “What happens if Jordan wins the third leg?” asked the writer known as Poz. “Do we all go crazy, like we did with Tiger? Are we looking at Spiethmania?”

The question seemed academic. Jordan Spieth, winner of the first two legs of golf’s Grand Slam and freshly minted champion of the John Deere Classic, had three-putted five times during a wind-addled second round of the Open Championship. He trailed leader Dustin Johnson by five strokes and was thought, by the scribes, to be insufficiently versed in the Old Course’s arcane defenses to stage a comeback.

It was a great question, nonetheless. The tall guy from Kansas City (beef oyster sauce) doubted that “mania” would ever be attached to Spieth’s name, no matter how many majors he eventually won. “Jordan’s not long enough to excite a mass audience. Golfers will appreciate him, but golf fans swoon for Tiger and Phil, Jack and Arnie, John Daly, Rory — guys who can really bomb it. Jordan is more of a refined ball-striker, like Ben Hogan, and Hogan was never as popular as Sam Snead.”

What?” The little guy from Philly (bang-bang Szechuan chicken) froze, his fork halfway to his mouth. “Hogan got a ticker tape parade!”

They went back and forth like that until the check came. Afterwards, on the back of the restaurant’s takeaway menu, the tall guy made a couple of lists. The first list was comprised of players who had achieved a certain iconic status in the broader culture: Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Snead, Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, John Daly, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy. The second list was comprised of players with comparable careers who had never quite achieved transcendent popularity: Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo. While acknowledging that personal charisma has a lot to do with superstardom, he detected a strong bias in favor of power players.

That was the position taken by the tall guy that night. He said, “Annika Sorenstam is a good example. I watched her dozens of times, and I never saw her hit a shot that was beyond the capabilities of your average LPGA pro. Annika simply played smart, mistake-free golf and maintained her playing focus better than her competition. And to me, that’s Spieth. He’s got all the shots and a great short game, but he’ll never make your jaw drop the way Tiger did when he pulled off some shot you didn’t think was possible.”

I agreed with the tall guy.

Okay, I was the tall guy. But two days later, after watching Spieth battle back to a T4 finish in the Open, I was prepared to eat bang-bang crow. What changed my mind was Spieth’s response to that gut-wrenching four-putt on the eighth hole, which included a first putt that went completely off the green. That disaster dropped him four strokes behind Zach Johnson and seemed to end his bid to become, at 21, the youngest Open winner since 1893.

But Spieth didn’t see it that way. He fought back with birdies on nine and 10, safely negotiated the transitional holes out by the estuary, and then thrilled the £10-paying customers by draining a 40-foot putt on No. 16. That birdie gave him a share of the lead at 15-under. And right there, he convinced me that absorbing a flurry of body blows can be as exciting as landing a haymaker punch.

Others seemed to be reaching the same conclusion. “There’s an uncertainty about Jordan that makes you watch, because you don’t quite know what he’s going to do,” said Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo. The analyst’s words echoed the “What will Phil do next?” advertising campaign for Mickelson and reminded me that unpredictability, aligned with talent, can be more compelling than raw power.

Granted, Spieth didn’t win at St. Andrews; Zach Johnson did. But the kid finished a mere stroke out of the three-man playoff, and he established himself as a favorite to win his third major of the year at next month’s PGA Championship. “I don’t know how many guys have done three majors in a year,” he said at day’s end. “I know Tiger has done it, and I’m sure Jack has.” (Nicklaus, in fact, never won three majors in a year.) Spieth added, “I’m very pleased with the way we battled.”

The four sportswriters were also pleased. Especially the tall guy, who left St. Andrews with hoisin sauce on his chin and a single word reverberating in his brain: Spiethmania.

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