On Sunday at the Tour Championship, with history and an ungodly amount of money on the line, Jordan Spieth faced yet another defining moment in a season full of them. His playing partner, Henrik Stenson–who with his buzz cut and bulging muscles is looking more and more like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV–had stuffed his tee shot for a sure birdie on the 197-yard par-3 11th hole at East Lake, in Atlanta. Spieth, coming off a bogey on the 10th hole, faced a 48-foot putt with at least six feet of break off a dastardly knob in the green. If he three-putted, he would slip into a tie with Stenson. Naturally, Spieth gutted the birdie putt, and at that moment the tournament was all but over. The look Stenson shot Spieth was classic: a mixture of annoyance, amusement and, yes, awe. Seeing it, I flashed back a decade and a half to Firestone Country Club, a stolen moment when Ernie Els witnessed Tiger Woods gouge a long approach out of six-inch rough, around a tree, to within 12 feet of a seemingly inaccessible pin placement. Els’s eyebrows shot up, and he offered a small but perceptible head shake. It was a moment of clarity, like the one Stenson experienced: I’m one of the best players in the world, but this guy is from another planet.
Winning the Tour Championship with a nine-under 271 pushed Spieth’s earnings for the year to a record $12.03 million, not including the $10 million bonus that came with his victory in the seasonlong FedEx Cup race. At 22 he’s the youngest player to win five times in a season since Horton Smith, way back in 1929. The four-stroke victory at East Lake helped Spieth clinch the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on Tour (68.91), and more to the point, it ended any silly talk of Jason Day’s stealing player of the year votes. Spieth, by virtue of his 1-1-4-2 finish in the majors, was always going to be the player of the year. The finish at the Tour Championship was merely the exclamation point that this epic season deserves. So how is the relentless Spieth going to celebrate?
“Get better,” he said on Sunday evening. “There are places I can get better: Ball-striking-wise, I can get stronger, I can hit it further.” Just so you know he isn’t utterly detached from reality, he did allow that, “My short game I want to keep consistent, keep exactly where it’s at.”
Part of Spieth’s charm is that he sees golf as a team sport, and he is generous in sharing credit: with caddie Michael Greller, who challenges and engages his man; swing coach Cameron McCormick, who has helped Spieth find the perfect blend of art and science in his approach; trainer Damon Goddard, who has helped transform Spieth from a boy to a man with six or seven grueling workouts a week; agent Jay Danzi, who has done a masterly job of allowing his client to focus on golf while also positioning him to make more money off the course than on it; and, not least, a tight, loving family that keeps him grounded. Earlier this year Spieth bought a big house in his native Dallas, though he allows that it was mostly for tax reasons. His only real splurge has been season tickets for his beloved Cowboys. Asked on Sunday about his new life-changing riches, Spieth said, “I have an opportunity now, with a year like this and a bonus like that, to celebrate and to share it with the people that have made it possible. And that’s kind of the plan. Our team did an unbelievable job this year. Everything was exactly how we needed it to be to peak at the right times. If we can continue to do that, then we’ll have more seasons like this. But right now, we’re going to enjoy it, and I’m able to help out those who made this possible. Because it was not a single effort.”
He also could have thanked his buddies Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, who have inspired and pushed him. McIlroy missed a chunk of the season with a left ankle injury, but the latter two of these twentysomethings finished in the top five of the final FedEx Cup standings, along with Stenson, 39, who offered not only the most memorable smirk of the Tour Championship but also the most efficient scouting report. At the end of a year during which Spieth inspired so much hyperbole, Stenson summed him up thusly: “Very tidy player.”