AUGUSTA, Ga. – A couple of years ago, Jack Nicklaus was talking about how young golfers have to “learn how to win.” That’s a common quote from golfers – that whole bit about learning how to win – but few explain what they actually mean by it. Nicklaus, though, has a way of piercing through clichés and making them meaningful.
Here were five things he said about learning how to win:
1. You have to learn how your body will respond under intense pressure.
2. You have to make certain mistakes so you can learn how to overcome them and how to avoid them later.
3. You have to then learn how to shrink your mistakes (you will always make mistakes), how to make them small enough they won’t cost you the tournament.
4. You have to learn the rhythms and pacing of golf so that you won’t try risky shots when you don’t need them.
5. You have to learn that golf tournaments are not usually won by making the heroic shot but, instead, by not making the disastrous ones.
Nicklaus said a few other things, but that was at the heart of it … there are simply things that a 20-year-old kid, no matter how talented, no matter how mature, no matter how astute and intuitive, will not know. And no one can teach him; you have to learn it yourself.
Sunday, Jordan Spieth went into the eighth hole with a two-shot lead at the Masters and everything – EVERYTHING – pointed his way. He had already made four birdies, one of them a miraculous shot from the bunker at No. 4 and another a heart-stopping 10-foot curler at No. 7 that was a bit like putting on marble. He had dazzled everyone all week with his sense of himself. He was only 20! It was his first Masters! The word on him: Jordan Spieth was born old.
Born old or not, this is still the Masters, those greens are still remorseless, and the Sunday pressure will still crush the spirit. On the par-5 eighth, Spieth hit his second shot to the right of the green and had a delicate but promising shot to set up for birdie. When he hit it, even though he could not see the ball land, he knew it was just about perfect. He expected that the ball would roll to within 3 or 4 feet of the cup.
Trouble was: He didn’t hear the crowd roar. In fact he didn’t hear the crowd do anything at all. That was bad. He ran up to the green to see what had gone wrong.
And he saw that his ball – impossibly – had just stopped, as if it had run out of gas. There was still a crazy 25-foot downhill luge course between the ball and the hole.
“I was baffled by it, I really was,” he would say. “I thought it was a really good shot.”
He left his first putt a little bit short. And he missed the next putt. Bogey. Bubba Watson made birdie and the two-shot lead was gone.
On the ninth hole, Spieth faced that classic Masters second shot into a green so severe that television simply cannot capture it. Basically, you are hitting into a green shaped like the Transamerica Pyramid Center in San Francisco. The thing you cannot do – CANNOT DO – is hit it short and have the ball roll back off the green. Jordan Spieth hit it short and the ball rolled back off the green.
“I hit it very solid … I saw it hit the bank, thought it would climb up,” Spieth would say. “I was kind of surprised to see it come back down.”
He followed with a nice chip and a superb putt that did not fall in. Bogey. Bubba Watson made birdie and, like that, impossibly fast, Spieth was two shots back. He would never be in the lead again.
But you notice the surprise Spieth felt on each of those shots? That’s a 20-year-old. People who have played in the major championships a lot learn: Bad breaks should NEVER surprise you.
Spieth did cut the margin to one shot on the next hole. But then, finally, there was the 12th hole. Golden Bell. The most famous golf hole in the world. It’s just a harmless looking little par 3 that somehow messes with the minds of the greatest golfers who ever lived. Spieth knew all about the mind games of this hole. He’s been following the Masters since he was a kid. He’d studied the way the greats – Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw – played it. He’d parred the hole each of the first three days.
It’s different on Sunday.
Spieth felt no wind at all. You never feel the right wind at No. 12. He hit his 9-iron and thought he’d hit it well. As he looked into the sky, he saw that his ball seemed to be fighting a little something, as if it was trying to break a tackle. What was that? Wind? “Go,” he said softly. The ball hit the front of the green, seemed to briefly take in the scenery, and then regretfully rolled back into the water.
After that, Spieth was never really a threat to Bubba Watson. Nobody was. Nobody made any run at all. Watson hit a 366-yard drive on the 13th hole, made birdie, and breezed uncontested to a three-shot victory.
So what’s the takeaway? Jordan Spieth is unquestionably sensible beyond his years. But 20 years old is still 20 years old. And no 20-year-old has ever won the Masters. It was tempting all week to think that he would be immune to that but, realistically, no one is immune.
The last time I wrote about Spieth, I quoted the movie “Big” … today it’s “The Matrix.” Remember the scene where Neo is about to try the jump across buildings?
“What if he makes it?” one of the crew asks.
“No one’s ever made their first jump,” says another.
That’s what this was for Jordan Spieth: His first jump. He’s a brilliant player. He has a genius for the short game, a great iron game and a unique ability to visualize the shot that he needs to hit before hitting it.
But as the day progressed, and the realization of what was happening hit him, Spieth began to get a bit emotional. He looked as if he was going to slam his club after one bad shot. He wildly flapped his hands in an effort to stop a putt he’d hit too hard. He shouted “Dad-gonnit, golly!” after hitting his shot short at No 16, which is kind of a fun thing to say – you have to like the G-rated version of the golfer’s wail – but it still reflected that his mind was running in a hundred different directions at once.
He looked defeated at times, frustrated at others, overly excited at other times. That easy pace that had guided him all week was just a little bit off.
“I wasn’t quite as patient today as I was the first three rounds and holding emotions as well,” he would say. “I was very close. It was still the best I’ve ever done on a Sunday, and I know that it can only improve from there.”
Spieth dreamed this dream many times in his young life. He imagined himself in the lead of the Masters again and again. But there are only so many things you can simulate about being in the lead at the Masters on Sunday. There is no way really to know how it will feel to be in that position, how you will respond to bad breaks and, conversely, how you will deal with the standing ovations on the some of the most famous holes in the world – not until you go through it.
And it is only when you go through it all that you can learn those Nicklaus lessons. Let’s say this, though: A perceptive and brilliant young player can learn those lessons pretty quickly. Nicklaus won the sixth major championship he entered. Tiger Woods won his fifth. A couple of years ago the young Rory McIlroy had the lead at Augusta going into the back nine on Sunday and then blew up. A few weeks later, he won the U.S. Open.
“I feel like I’m ready to win,” Spieth would say. “I just want to get back out there.”
See, he’s learned one big lesson already. There will be other chances.