Jordan Spieth may Lack Flash, but He has the Game and Maturity to Become a Generational Force

April 15, 2015

The guy at the next laptop knew when Jordan Spieth had it won. “It was that delicate chip from behind the bunker on the 54th hole. He was looking at bogey for sure, probably double, and coming right after the double on 17…” The guy next to the guy at the next laptop said the first guy had it all wrong: “Jordan had it won when he made that incredible par save from out of the trees on Sunday, on No. 11. He could’ve made a big number there, and with Mickelson and Rose making their moves…”

The two laptop guys turned and looked to me.

“Jordan had it won,” I said with a casual air of certitude, “when he leaned to the right and slipped his cellphone into the glove compartment.”

My allusion to the AT&T commercial that has Spieth swearing off texting while driving went right over the heads of my unimaginative colleagues. They covered the 79th Masters the old-fashioned way—by walking the course and interviewing people—thereby denying themselves the fuller understanding of the game that one gets by watching the CBS and Golf Channel feeds in the press building.

The AT&T commercial, if you missed it, has the 21-year-old Spieth explaining that the only downside of PGA Tour life, as he has known it these last 27 months, is the loneliness that goes with a vagabond lifestyle. “So I don’t know what I’d do without my phone,” he says, checking his emails on the fly and staring wistfully at an iChat window labeled “Mom and Dad, Home.” He concludes, “That’s why sometimes I don’t use it at all.’” At that point, he stows his phone in the glove box, puts the car in gear and motors off towards his next golfing triumph.

The commercial’s message is praiseworthy (“No text is worth a life”), but there’s meaning to be found, as well, in AT&T’s choice of a messenger. Spieth, who first drew national attention as a one-and-done golf phenom from the University of Texas, comes off as earnest, dedicated, direct and, above all, prudent.

Jump to Masters Friday. On the 18th green, Spieth had not-quite-a-tap-in for a two-round total of 130, which would break a Masters record, held by Ray Floyd, that had stood for 39 years. Setting his feet at an awkward angle to avoid stepping in his playing partner’s line, the kid leaned to his right [analogy alert!], reached out with his putter, hesitated, adjusted his body slightly…and then backed away. It was then, actually—by the simple act of placing a coin under his ball and waiting to putt out—that Spieth had it won.

Some will complain that America’s best golfer shouldn’t be a guy who reflexively replaces the smoke-detector battery in his hotel room. We get more kicks watching the flamboyant Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champ, sling-slice his way around Amen Corner. We get a real charge watching the elongated Dustin Johnson bust drives over the biggest loblolly pines. That’s natural. But Spieth brings an inner fire to his work that neither of those stars can match, and his feats of concentration are positively Nicklausian. “He has the ability to perform at his best when the pressure is on,” Phil Mickelson said from second place. “That’s something that you really can’t teach.”

Spieth credits “imagination” for his success at Augusta National, where in his two Masters he has neither carded a round over par nor finished out of the top five. “I like to see lines,” he said on Sunday. “I like to see shapes, and I like putts that break. I kind of like to cast something out and let it feed in and be very speed-based. And that’s what this course gives.”

That’s almost poetic, but what Augusta National giveth, it is equally inclined to take away. The most memorable shots of Spieth’s first major victory were the delicate par-savers cited by my laptop neighbors, plus a dozen other chips, pitches, and mid-irons of exquisite touch and subtlety. “I’ll never hit it as far as he does,” Spieth said on Sunday—“he” being Rory McIlroy, the still-young world No. 1, who finished fourth. “I have to make up for that somewhere else.”

Spieth’s humility is becoming—he is already the even-younger world No. 2—but he has to know that 21-year-olds don’t win the Masters that often. So far, in fact, he shares that distinction with only one other golfer—Tiger Woods, who went on to win 13 more majors before distracted driving, of all things, sent his career into a tailspin.

“This isn’t an honor that’s carried lightly,” Spieth said at day’s end, getting used to his newly bestowed green jacket. “The members of Augusta National and everyone who partakes in the Masters demand the highest quality, on and off the course, from their champions. I feel ready to carry that baton.”

No one doubts that. But when Spieth gets behind the wheel, the commercial assures us, the Masters baton will join his phone in the glove compartment.

The kid keeps his eyes on the road.

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