IRVING, Texas – Here’s an inconvenient truth about Jordan Spieth that only Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and very few other young phenoms in recent history have witnessed: The better he’s played, the more ripe he’s become for criticism.
Think about it. If Spieth had flamed out at last month’s Masters Tournament, posting a pair of 76s en route to a Friday afternoon exit, it would have been written off as a rookie learning curve, barely causing a ripple in the headlines. If he’d struggled at last week’s Players Championship and never found his way to the leaderboard, it would have been chalked up to youthfulness on a course that demands experience.
Instead, he contended at both events. Nearly won each of ‘em. He played in the final pairing at Augusta National, shot 72 and finished in a share of second place, three strokes behind Bubba Watson; he again played in the final pairing at TPC Sawgrass, shot 74 and finished in a share of fourth, three strokes behind Martin Kaymer.
In each instance, there was a groundswell of support for the notion that Spieth isn’t a closer. He’s not clutch. He doesn’t have the right mental fortitude to step on his fellow competitors’ throats and not let ‘em up. Forget the fact that he’s only 20. Forget the fact that the list of so-called “closers” at such a young age consists of exactly nobody. This has still been a prevalent discussion.
Though he contends that he doesn’t watch much TV or read many stories about himself, Spieth has heard this opinion. And he takes offense to it.
“I don’t really care about the criticism,” he told GolfChannel.com during a Tuesday afternoon practice round in advance of this week’s Byron Nelson Championship, “because the people criticizing and even the people supporting me, there have only been a few people that have been in the positions that I’ve been in at my age, being able to try and compete the first time at these events and win them.
“I’m disappointed in myself, because I feel like I could have pulled them off. But I could care less what anybody really thinks.”
There’s no doubt Woods or McIlroy or any other player who’s been in a similar situation would applaud those words. Any mental guru worth his weekly stipend will agree that letting the criticism fester to the point of frustration is adverse to improvement.
But for Spieth, it’s about more than just not letting it bother him. As he maintains, it’s not as if he’s played poorly on those last two important Sunday afternoons. He just hasn’t gotten things to go his way.
“Augusta was three holes – one was a bounce and two were two feet from perfect. I look back at it like that was almost the greatest Sunday I ever played,” he explained. “This past week, I look back at the shots that I hit and on 9, it wasn’t that bad of a shot that I couldn’t make birdie, but I got up there and I couldn’t make birdie. The bounce on 10 was tough; I thought I hit a really good shot in there. So I look back at those moments and there’s no reason to be criticized for them when I was that close.”
Even the critics can agree that time is on Spieth’s side. Woods didn’t win his first major championship title until he was a year older than Spieth is now; McIlroy didn’t win one until he was two years older.
And those guys are the exception to the rule.
Perhaps an even better comparison is that of Phil Mickelson. He didn’t win his initial major title until he was 34 – or 14 years older than Spieth’s current age. Still, Mickelson has transformed from being the game’s most criticized player, one for whom those catcalls echoed for so many years, to a five-time major winner who is widely believed to be one of the game’s 15 most successful players of all-time, if not very close to the top 10.
“He would be a great guy for me to sit down and talk to about how you deal with people who are critical,” Spieth admitted. “He dealt with it when he was No. 2 in the world for five, six, seven years. He had close calls; he had the lead on the last hole a few times and blew it. It was necessary for him. I think he’d be a good guy to sit down and talk to about going into the round, the preparation for it, what you’re thinking about the course – that kind of stuff.
“I’m looking forward to picking his brain – and I know he’d be open to that.”
Within that comment is an important lesson that Spieth already understands, but his current detractors could stand to learn. Getting into contention at big events should be considered a positive rather than a negative. It’s more important to have gotten close and experienced the ride than never having gotten there.
Spieth knows that it was necessary for Mickelson to endure that scar tissue before he started winning. And he knows that it just might be necessary for him, too.
“When I say that I think experience helps a lot, it’s not experience on what shots to play; it’s experience on how you feel out there, how comfortable you are,” he said. “That’s what I take away positively. At Augusta, I was out there and every single shot was just heavy packed with nerves. I woke up [Sunday] morning and until two hours after the event, my heart was beating faster than it ever has.
“When I got on the course this past week, I felt more comfortable; I settled down quicker. I wasn’t really that nervous as the day went on. So that’s reassuring.”
You wouldn’t think a 20-year-old with top-four finishes in each of the year’s two biggest events so far would need any extra reassurance. Then again, you wouldn’t think such a player would be receiving a dose of negative criticism, either.
Spieth has heard these attacks. He knows they exist. And like the very few other players who have found themselves in this unique position in the past, he can’t wait to prove ‘em all wrong.