AUGUSTA, Ga. – There’s a fun scene in the movie “Big” where Tom Hanks, playing the grown-up version of a 13-year-old boy, is talking to a neurotic and increasingly jaded co-worker named Susan. He tells her that she’s nice.
“You don’t know me that well,” Susan says.
“Yes I do,” he says. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve met.”
She looks at him – there’s just this wonderful innocence on his face, completely devoid of cynicism and world-weariness and all the things that she had grown accustomed to in the adult world. She is so disarmed by his look, so disarmed by the childhood wonder on his face, that all of her defenses just fall away and she is, in this crazy way, happy.
“How do you do it?” she asks.
That’s the question I think people really wanted to ask Jordan Spieth Saturday evening. How do you do it? The questions were mostly about the astonishing story that builds around him. Spieth is 20 years old. He’s at his first Masters. And he goes into Sunday tied with Bubba Watson for the lead. Nothing at all about this makes much sense.
Look: No first-timer has won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller somehow beat Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff in 1979. No 20-year-old has ever won it. This, after all, is Augusta National. The most used word Masters week – with the possible exceptions of “patron” and “tradition" and “pimento cheese” – is “experience.” All you ever hear about is how experience, course knowledge, a sense of the land is imperative if you want to contend. Six 50-somethings made the cut this year. Augusta National is a country for old men.
So Jordan Spieth going into Sunday’s final round tied for the lead is an absurd, amazing, crazy story.
So questions revolved around that. But there’s something even more amazing about Jordan Spieth than his dazzling golf game. Tiger Woods as a young man was no mystery to anyone. He came to win. He came to conquer. He never hid his hunger, his ambition, his intense belief that nobody in the world could beat him.
First time he came to Augusta as a 19-year-old amateur phenom, people asked him what he hoped to learn from the experience.
“I came to win,” Woods said, and he meant it.
While a few of the old-timers might have blanched a bit at the chutzpah, there was no missing the essence of the young Tiger Woods. He did not come to joke around or to hang out with the old legends. He was not here to take in the atmosphere or to have his photo taken at the Hogan Bridge. He was not here to smell the azaleas. He was Alexander the Great, and he came to get what he believed was rightfully his.
Two years later, when he became the youngest champion in Masters history – and did it by 12 shots – everybody understood exactly where it came from.
But Jordan Spieth – how does he do it? There is no bravado. He’s quirky and funny and respectful and agreeable. There is no talk of destiny. There is no talk of winning. He falls to his knees at No. 12 as he prays for his ball to stay on the green (it does). He gives himself little pep talks right on the course: “We’re going to be all right,” or “We’ll make bogey at worst,” or “Hit the smart shot” and so on. He talks about being so nervous out there that he’s losing his hair (at age 20!). He talks about how much it means to him to be here.
“I’m 20, and this is the Masters, and this is the tournament I’ve always dreamt about,” he says happily.
Also, there’s the Mister thing. He calls the great golfers “Mister.” He doesn’t do this awkwardly; it’s clearly part of his makeup. Mr. Crenshaw was helpful. Mr. Nicklaus helped out, too. When someone asks him how old someone needs to be to earn the “Mister” honorific, he says that anyone older than him gets it.
“So you’ll call Bubba ‘Mister?’” he’s asked, referring to his co-leader.
“Yeah, Mr. Watson for sure,” he says, and he smiles. “Just because it’ll mess with him.”
Tiger Woods would have seen such admissions and chumminess and openness as signs of weakness. I don’t mean this as any sort of judgment. That was the right way for Tiger Woods; he needed to create an aura around himself, a sense of invincibility. He did that, and it led him to become for 10 years or so the greatest golfer anyone has ever seen. Through the years other young golfers – Rory McIlroy included – found themselves trying to be like Tiger, even if it did not fit their nature.
But Jordan Spieth seems entirely comfortable being Jordan Spieth. He had a spectacular amateur career, becoming only second player (along with Tiger Woods) to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateurs. He led Texas to a national championship his one year in college, then went to the U.S. Open as an amateur and finished 21st. He turned pro and finished second in his third tournament. He won a tournament last July at age 19. That made him the first teenager to win a PGA Tour event since the year the Empire State Building was finished.
He came to Augusta filled with all the joy and hope of a 20-year-old who has been dreaming about the place all his life. You couldn’t be around the kid without feeling … happy. Sure, he came to contend. He’s confident in his ability. Spieth’s golfing brilliance comes out of his quick ability to learn, his unnatural calm and incredible touch around the greens. There’s a beautiful simplicity to his game: He sees the shot and then he hits it.
For instance: At No. 10 he found himself at the bottom of a steep hill facing an absurdly harsh shot up to the green. On CBS, three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo talked about the countless things that could go wrong and the extreme difficulty of the shot. He made it sound roughly like trying to tightrope across Niagara Falls.
Spieth promptly hit the simplest looking shot that rolled to 2 feet from the cup, where he made his routine par.
“These youngsters!” Faldo blurted out with amazement in his voice.
But it’s Spieth’s energy, his easygoing way, his eagerness to learn and experience everything about Augusta that put him at the center of the gallery’s focus. Of course, nobody knows what happens on Sunday. But at this moment, the 20-year-old kid looks like the sturdiest player in the field. Saturday was a wild day as the greens hardened and slickened – by the end of the day players were calling those greens “frightening” and “on the edge.”
“It was crazy, crazy fast out there,” Spieth himself says. “I’ve never putted on greens like that before.”
But while the tournament tossed and turned, while golfers got hot and then golfers got cold, while Gary Woodland tied a course record with a 30 on the first nine holes and 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez shot a 66 while second-round leader Bubba Watson couldn’t get any of his putts to the hole and Matt Kuchar rolled a putt 35 feet past the hole on 18 … Spieth was a rock. He made four birdies, two bogeys, held together.
“Tomorrow is about seeing how I can control my game and emotions out on the golf course,” he says.
Well, can he control his game and emotions? On Sunday? At his first Masters? At age 20?
“You draw on memories of guys that have made the putts on the last hole – from Phil to Tiger to last year with Adam,” he says. “You just dream of what it would mean and how cool it would be and all those putts I hit when I was real young with my friends … to win the Masters.”
He had this great look on his face. It was the Tom Hanks look from “Big.” With that, people all around remembered being kids and trying their own putts to win the Masters of their imaginations.
“You know,” Spieth says, “I would love the opportunity to test it tomorrow.”
Twenty years old. How does he do it?