AUGUSTA, Ga. – The thing that blows the mind about Jordan Spieth is how utterly finished he is as a golfer. Flawless. It is like he was designed by Apple in California. Really, there should be one of those Jony Ive Apple commercials about him, one where a piano plays in the background and Ive says in that British accent: “Golf is, in its essence, about perfection. But perfection is not merely the absence of error or freedom from flaws. It is a state of being that hovers above the every day frailty of the human experience. Jordan Spieth is our clearest representation yet of that unreachable goal.”
Or, you know, something really out there.
Jordan Spieth is really out there. It isn’t just the record-breaking 14 under par he shot the first two days at Augusta. It isn’t just the absurd ease with which he seems to handle the pressure and deflect distraction. It isn’t just the effortless joy he conveys in the way he plays and responds to questions and requests and fans (everyone – and I mean everyone – likes the kid). And it isn’t just that he’s 21 years old, only months older than Tiger Woods was when he shook up the world and almost two years younger than Seve Ballesteros when he did.
No, it’s all of it, the sheer completeness of Spieth’s game, his attitude, his public persona, his competitiveness. It is all in balance. On the 18th green Friday, with a huge lead in hand and a record-low score assured, he faced a short birdie putt to go 15 under par. He misread the putt and left himself a tap-in for par. He was clearly surprised and upset. But instead of tapping it in, he looked at the ball, looked at the hole, looked at the stance he would need, and decided instead to mark the ball and putt it later.
“I was a little outside my comfort zone,” he said. “I didn’t want to force anything … there was no point. I was going to make it if I stepped off.”
This is a small thing, but then everything wonderful about Spieth’s game comes down to small things. Golfers and analysts talk about this all the time: Nothing about Spieth’s game really stands out. He doesn’t hit the ball longer than others, higher than others or even straighter than others (he is currently 107th on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation). His sand game is good but not necessarily great. He’s very good around the greens, but he’s not a Ballesteros- or Tom Watson-like genius. He is a marvelous putter, but that alone doesn’t tend to get the blood pumping.
So what makes him the hottest golfer on earth comes down to mathematical possibilities. Bill James, in trying to explain what made Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez great, used an example from math: Seven factorial (7 x 6 x 5 …) is just 5,040. But 10 factorial (10 x 9 x 8 x 7 …) is 3,628,800. How could the three numbers between seven and 10 make that much of a difference?
That’s mathematics. Two to the tenth power is 1,024. Two to the 20th power is more than a million. Two to the 30th power is more than a billion. If you keep throwing in factors, the numbers go up exponentially. Maybe Spieth can’t hit it as far as Dustin Johnson, can’t turn the ball like Bubba Watson, can’t hit iron shots like Rory McIlroy, but then you multiply all the things Spieth can do. He hits it straight and far enough. He is good with his irons. He is imaginative around the greens. He is a fantastic putter. He thinks through the game well. Then you factor in his composure under pressure and his never-ending aggressiveness and his uncommon sense of self … well, when you are finished with all the calculations you have a player who can almost win the Masters at age 20 and shoot 14 under par the during first two rounds at the Masters a year later.
There’s a funny thing about Augusta: Everyone loves to talk about the Curse of the Par 3 Contest, which sounds like the least interesting “Scooby Doo" episode ever. They started playing this Par 3 Contest in 1960, and since then no one has won that and the Masters in the same year. This curse frightened Woods so much he actually failed to show up for a Par 3 Contest playoff.
Of course, it’s also possible that the curse might not be some odd hex but, instead, simple probability. Try this trick at home: Take out two decks of cards. Shuffle them thoroughly. Now look at the first card in each deck. Are they the same card? No? Try it again. Are they same card now? No? Try it again. Are they the same card now? No? Well, you obviously have a cursed deck of cards there. I’m guessing if you do that 10,000 times, the same card will come up roughly once out of every 52 shots – there being 52 cards in a deck.
There are more than 52 golfers at the Masters, by the way.
But while people talk about that absurd thing endlessly, there’s another Augusta quirk that is pretty interesting: Only one first-round leader in 30 years has actually won the tournament. Trevor Immelman was tied for the lead after one round in 2008 and he went on to win it despite a final-round 75. That’s it. Nobody else has done it. That does seem weird.
Only, it actually isn’t that weird: Truth is, Augusta National tends to be a different golf course on Thursday and even Friday than it is later in the week. Tom Watson says that the Masters people have told him they want low scores the first day or two. They make the pin placements somewhat benign. They soften up the greens. This gives the tournament a little pizazz to start. Then, when the weekend comes, the tough pin placements come out. The greens get a little faster. Tack on some tournament pressure … it’s actually not too surprising that players have a hard time holding on.
Point is, everyone is still watching Spieth closely. He’s dominated the first tournament. He’s five shots up on Charley Hoffman, seven or nine or 10 shots up on most of the contenders,12 up on Tiger – who still wants to believe. The tournament is Spieth’s to lose. But now the second tournament begins, and curse or no, early-round leaders haven’t done that well in the second tournament. Woods knew exactly what he was saying when he referred to Greg Norman’s collapse in 1996: “With 36 holes here to go, anything game happen – ’96 proved that.” Sleep on that, Jordan.
And it must be said that last year, Spieth led by two shots on Sunday and then blinked.
“What I learned (last year),” he said, “was that the weekend of a major, those rounds, can often seem like two rounds with all the mental stuff running through your head, the stress levels … The hardest thing to do is put aside wanting to win so bad.”
Thing is, after watching the remarkable display Spieth put on Thursday and Friday, you sense that he will put all curses aside and handle all the challenges the course will throw his way. You sense that he will stay within himself, keep shooting low scores, leave everyone else behind. You sense that he’s actually this new Apple product that wins Masters Tournaments and makes it look absurdly easy.