ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Golf, like boxing and tennis and track and all other individual sports, relies on the power of its stars. It’s an inevitable thing, really.
In team sports like baseball or football, fandom builds from countless things. Geography. History. Team colors. A Dodgers fan, a Bears fan, a Spurs fan might be rooting for the team of her father or favorite teacher or the first team she ever saw in person or any other reason.
But in golf, like those other individual sports, a player must give you a reason to care. There are thousands of professional golfers around the world and all of them have honed their skills to the level of magic. When compared to our own meager games, all of them can crush long drives and hit precise iron shots and make the golf ball hop gently out of the sand. Follow any medium-level professional for 18 holes and you will see something remarkable.
The larger game of golf thrives when a few of them – and usually one in particular – stands out, thrills us, captivates us, angers us in ways that consistently leave us awed and surprised. Think Ali. Think Bolt. Think Serena. Think Tiger. It’s a rare thing.
Most athletes, even some of the most fantastic ones, just don't have that extra push, they just don’t quite enthrall us like that. We admire them, applaud them, even root for them. But they never quite grab us emotionally. We don’t quite love them. We don’t quite loathe them either. They leave us unmoved.
Sunday at St. Andrews, for just a few moments, Jordan Spieth once again pulled golf out of that pleasant monotony and made it riveting and chilling and fun. It’s amazing that it is Spieth playing this role. A year ago, if you had to pick the new Tiger Woods, the player who might step out of the moment and make golf big and colorful and cool, Spieth probably would have been about the 15th choice. Rory McIlroy was the one with everything then, and you had a long list of players (Dustin Johnson? Rickie Fowler? Jason Day? Louis Oosthuizen?) with silkier swings and longer drives and more obvious gifts.
It’s funny, even now – even as Spieth finishes a break or two away from becoming the first man since Ben Hogan to win the first three legs of golf’s Grand Slam – people struggle to put into words just what it is that makes Spieth good. He doesn’t hit it that far. He doesn’t hit it that high. He doesn’t hit it that close. He’s not a machine of consistency. You will hear even enlightened experts talk about Spieth’s lack of weapons.
The trouble is that the mind tends to deconstruct things because we can’t quite see the whole mosaic. We tend to think of great players in terms of the numerous skills they possess. How far does he drive it? How good are his long irons? How well does he putt it? How is his chipping game? Rank each of these things on a 10-point scale and add them up.
This is not golf. Golf is about putting the ball in the hole in the fewest shots, and in this Jordan Spieth’s genius is mesmerizing. His golf is an orchestra; the violins and cellos and flutes and drums blend together. There are no soloists.
At Augusta, he smashed the record for most birdies made. At the U.S. Open, he shot the lowest score on a quirky course with chewed up greens that left the others grumbling. Heck, a week before the Open Championship, against the unrequested advice of millions, he showed up at the John Deere Classic in Illinois to get the feeling of being in contention hitting shots under pressure.
The first two days, his choice seemed a mistake; he was middle of the pack. He resolved the issue by shooting 61 on Saturday and then winning a playoff on Sunday. Spieth then hopped on a plane with some of the other players, including eventual Open champion Zach Johnson, and he headed for the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The Open Championship this year was a bumpy and disjointed ride. Scottish golf is framed by the weather; none of the famous links golf courses here can defend themselves when the wind is down and the sky is clear. This is particularly true of the Old Course, which on clear days can become a pitch-and-putt even for weekend golfers. So, bad weather is normally welcome by tournament officials. The trouble this year was that the weather was too bad. Biblical rains poured on Friday morning, flooding the Old Course and causing a three and a half hour delay. This forced a good chunk of the field, including Spieth, to finish their second round on Saturday.
And on Saturday the winds blew. Boy did the winds blow. Spieth went out early Saturday when the wind was howling so loudly that golf balls would roll on their own, like unleashed puppies. The Royal and Ancient, who make such decisions, soon realized they had made a ghastly mistake. The course was unplayable. But in the interim, Spieth had a birdie putt blown backward from the hole. As it turned out, that was a pretty critical shot lost.
Well, he finished one shot back so every shot lost would turn out to be critical and, weather aside, Spieth would say he had only himself to blame. If he does have one skill that stands out in his golfing orchestra it might be his putting touch. But in the second round alone, he three-putted five times. In the third round, he three-putted again.
This should have been too much to overcome, but Spieth got hot on the back nine of his third round and played well to start the fourth. He was still just a shot off the lead when he went to the normally uneventful par-3 8th. He hit a loose tee shot that left him 40 yards right of the flag. He decided to putt the ball.
The greatest players of past generations – Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, those guys – marvel constantly at Spieth’s decision-making. He is still only 21 and he has not played professional golf for very long, but he invariably makes the right choices when in contention. This is no easy thing. The right choice in golf often seems irrational. Sometimes you have to hit the ball away from the flag. Sometimes you have to play for a bogey. Even Nicklaus, the greatest thinker in the game’s history, needed some time to learn how to play well under pressure. Let’s face it, a typical 21-year-old, no matter how talented, will inevitably play too aggressively; it is astounding that Spieth has resisted such tendencies all year.
On the eighth hole, he could not resist. The smart play, as he later acknowledged, would have been to play conservatively, leaving himself a tough 6- or 8- or even 10-foot uphill putt for par. Instead, Spieth cracked the putt so hard, it looked like something you might see on a putt-putt course. No windmill could stop it. The ball rolled off the green and a shaken Spieth four-putted the hole and made double-bogey.
This should have finished him for sure. He dropped four behind the leader and the weather was gradually worsening. Well, it was a nice run. No one since Woods himself had won the first two majors of the year. Reporters scrambled to learn more about Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman and others who still had a chance.
Only this kid seems utterly incapable of giving up on himself – yet another instrument in his golfing orchestra. He birdied the next hole, then birdied the 10th to get both of his lost strokes back and put himself just a shot off the lead. He knew that he needed at least one more birdie to put himself in position to win the golf tournament, and watching him grind for that birdie was incredible. He almost chipped in for birdie. Another birdie putt drifted an inch left. He came to the brutal 16th hole, a hole only one person had birdied in the previous couple of hours, and he faced a roller-coaster 50-foot putt. To ask even Jordan Spieth to make that putt under those conditions seemed unfair. He calmly studied the putt from both sides, set up, and knocked it in.
Cheers. Roars. Goosebumps. It was impossible. Spieth was tied for the lead. St. Andrews, in that moment, was a rainy blur of joy and astonishment. The Grand Slam was in play.
The moment only lasted for, well, a moment. But we should bask in that moment for longer. When Arnold Palmer came along more than a half century ago, golf was seen as elitist, a country club thing, bland and uninteresting television. Then this Hollywood star comes along, smoking a cigarette, slashing at the ball with abandon, coming back from impossible deficits while fans – people you knew, factory workers, butchers, cops, nurses – chased after him cheering their heads off.
When Tiger Woods came along, golf had grown stale and invariable. Everyone swung the club the same. Everyone dressed the same. Everyone in the crowd looked the same. The unofficial “best golfer in the world” title changed hands so often that there really was no king, no one to measure greatness against.
Then, here was Tiger Woods, a black man in a white sport, driving the ball for miles and hitting impossible shots like they were nothing and pumping his fist and shouting into the air, “Yeah!” And suddenly a golfer – not a baseball player or a football player or fighter – was the coolest athlete in the world.
They were both at St. Andrews this week for only a short while, Palmer to hit a few shots in an exhibition of champions and Woods to hit only a few more shots in two dismal rounds. The endless Woods debate – will he ever again even be a shadow of himself? – loses steam as one side of the argument grows harder and harder to make. But even if he miraculously does come back, golf still needs the next star, the one who will make the sport bigger than life.
Can it be Jordan Spieth? Can it really be a clean-cut and friendly young man from Texas who says is modest and confident and whose game doesn’t make you go wow at any point until the ball actually drops in the cup? In that moment after the putt at 16, when he gripped St. Andrews, I realized that the answer is a resounding yes. Spieth is not like Arnie or Tiger. He’s something else, something you are seeing all over sports now: The likeable superstar. He is like Steph Curry. He is like Alex Morgan. He is like Andrew Luck. You don’t just want them to win, you want to hang out with them. A hundred times already I’ve been asked: Is Jordan Spieth as nice as he seems? There was a time when stars had to be larger than life. Maybe it’s changing. People don’t just love Jordan Spieth; they wish he was their brother-in-law.
Anyway, the moment did pass and the anticlimactic ending happened. Spieth bogeyed 17 like just about everyone else in the field. He gave himself a chance to make par (which was like making birdie) but he over-read his putt. He then needed birdie on the 18th and he hit his worst drive of the day, way left, leaving him an uncomfortable angle and distance. So many people were taking his photo when he tried to hit his second shot that he had to back off. Then he made the sort of mistake he rarely makes; he hit his approach a little short and the ball spun off the green and rolled into the Valley of Sin. The groans at St. Andrews were overwhelming and the final word. His valiant birdie effort skirted just by the hole, but Spieth knew the moment he hit it that it would not go in.
Zach Johnson won the Open Championship in a playoff. He’s one of those great athletes who just does not move the needle, but there are few players in the game who are as athletically admirable. He gets everything out of his game. He truly does have limited weapons, and he must go out there week after week and win on the power of his short-irons and masterful putting. He had made a spectacular birdie putt on the 18th just to get into the playoff, and then he made two more birdies in the four-hole playoff. He won a St. Andrews Open Championship to pair with his Masters green jacket, a Hall of Fame combination.
And when he finished, who was there waiting to hug him in congratulations? Right. Jordan Spieth. Because Jordan Spieth.