In the aftermath of Jordan Spieth’s title contention at the Masters Tournament, just a few hours after the 20-year-old flirted with our imaginations before finishing in a share of second place, I was asked the following question during a radio interview:
“Does Jordan Spieth need to win a major soon in order to validate what he did this week?”
Once I removed my jaw from the ground and gathered my thoughts enough to respond, I stammered something about how he could go winless at the majors for two more years and still be on Jack Nicklaus’ pace, or eight more years and still be on Arnold Palmer’s pace, or 14 more years and still be on Ben Hogan’s pace. Or if the questioner preferred a comparison of a more recent vintage, Phil Mickelson’s first also came 14 years later than Spieth’s current age. And really, if you want to get technical about the query, the kid doesn’t need to validate anything he just accomplished on the game’s biggest stage.
So, you see … a simple “no” wouldn’t have sufficed.
But just that sort of question – even if this specific one was merely the stuff of shock radio hyperbole – is the kind that’s acceptable in other sports, but doesn’t translate well to golf.
Juan Marichal tossed a one-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts in his major-league debut. Mario Lemieux stole the puck from Ray Bourque and scored in the first shift of his first NHL game. LeBron James went straight from high school to the NBA and posted 25 points, nine assists and six rebounds in his initial appearance.
Those guys were bound for greatness right from the start, barely a speed bump in their way.
Because of its individual nature, because of the depths of its fields on the elite tours, because experience plays such a major factor and a player’s prime age can last for nearly three decades – because of so many reasons, really – expectations for young golfers so often go unfulfilled.
All of which leads to another player who’s been in the news lately.
This player is only 24, but just recorded a third career win on the highest level to go along with 10 top-10s in major championships already. Sound like someone about whom you’d be optimistic? Surprise: That means you’re bullish on Michelle Wie.
Golf’s poster child for what happens when a player is overhyped and underperforms, Wie has now put together a resume befitting an up-and-coming star. Take away everything you already know about her, erase those memories of her teeing it up in men’s events a decade ago, and the numbers alone suggest she’s on the verge of bigger and better things very soon.
And yet, when it comes to long-term expectations, most observers have already moved on to the much younger Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko, each of whom has won LPGA titles as teenagers.
That’s one problem with expectations in golf. By the time they’re fulfilled, we’ve usually saddled a younger phenom with ‘em.
Another problem: The more a player exceeds expectations, the more is expected from that player. That might sound like a riddle, but it afflicts the best and brightest of the upcoming generation. Always has, really.
I asked Rory McIlroy about this phenomenon during the Memorial Tournament two years ago. At the time, McIlroy was a year removed from one eight-stroke major championship win and two months shy of another. He was in the midst of missing a third consecutive cut and the scrutiny must have felt like four walls closing in on him.
“I think that is the way of life in anything, if you're in the spotlight,” he admitted then. “If I'd have missed two cuts in a row a couple years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid. But nowadays, it's a little different.”
Expectations are a funny thing. When former unheralded junior golfer Bubba Watson becomes a two-time Masters champion, he’s exceeded expectations; when sweet-swinging Fred Couples, straight out of central casting, wins only one, he’s somehow underachieved.
If Tiger Woods eventually falls short of his intended goal of 18 or 19 major victories, it might be written that he was crushed under the weight of not only his own expectations, but those of everyone else, as well. Is that fair? Of course not, but as Woods often says, it is what it is.
There’s a lesson here. It’s one that Rory McIlroy learned a few years ago and Michelle Wie is still learning today and Jordan Spieth will learn in the coming months and years. The better a young player is, the bigger the expectations.
Winning won’t make them go away, either. It will only continue inflating the anticipation like a balloon, until it can’t take any more and bursts or hovers in the air overhead.