LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Tiger Woods has come to understand how it works. Now Jordan Spieth is learning all about the modern, 24/7, hyper-social sports media culture.
After all, talk shows need something to discuss for all of those hours … and websites need something to put on all of these blank pages … and social-media managers need something to type with 140 characters or less.
And so earlier this month, when Spieth missed consecutive cuts for the first time in his brilliant career, he scrolled through his Twitter and Instagram feed, past the posts about his beloved Longhorns and Cowboys, and stumbled upon a few pictures of himself. There was a theme: He was annoyed, frustrated, tired.
“It’s actually amazing the amount of pictures photographers must take to get these crazy reactions that randomly you don’t think anybody is around that you’re giving and they capture it,” he said.
Here he smiled.
“It’s not the most flattering of pictures that happen when you’re not playing well.”
And after one of the best major seasons ever, no, Spieth has not played well during this playoff run. Poor opening rounds on tough golf courses have left him with too much work to make up, and as a result he has missed two cuts in a row for the first time as a pro.
On his personal panic meter, the early exits at the Barclays and Deutsche Bank rate pretty low. He took some time off, attended a few football games, and after a little work says he feels “very confident about where I’m at right this second.”
Can’t blame him, because even after his recent struggles, the two-time major winner is still guaranteed to be among the top five players in the FedEx Cup standings next week at East Lake, giving him a clear shot at the $10 million bonus.
And besides, Spieth joked that there’s no way his oh-fer can continue here outside Chicago – there is no cut with only a 70-man field.
“I’m happy to be checking into my hotel, and when they ask what day I’m checking out, I can say, ‘I’m checking out on Sunday,’” he said.
But Spieth’s social-media experience offered a glimpse into a professional athlete’s mindset in these rapidly changing times. The question that prompted all of this was whether he was aware of the “What’s Wrong with Jordan Spieth?!” chatter that has been so prevalent on TV, websites and social media over the past week and a half.
“I’m not aware of the specifics of what Joe sitting on his couch in Montana thinks about my golf game,” he said Tuesday, “but it’s interesting how it’s a what-can-you-do-for-me-now? kind of thing when the spotlight is on. I’m that way with sports teams, so why can’t people be that way with me?”
Now this is where it really gets good, when he brings in the rest of the Tour’s new world order, with Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler.
“Everyone has their opinions, and the hardest thing for me to do is to not react to that and just to say, you know what, two weeks ago, everyone said, ‘You’re the best there is. You’re awesome, man.’ Not a bad thing said. And then Jason wins, and it’s ‘Jason is the best in the world, man. He’s awesome.’
“And then Rickie wins. Rickie wasn’t even what you guys were talking about. You guys were talking about me, Rory and Jason. Rickie wins, and all of a sudden people are coming out of their igloos and they’re saying, ‘Man, that’s my guy. He’s the best in the world.’ It’s just, what can you do for me now?”
He’s right, of course. In this hot-take, pageview- and ratings-driven world, there’s little room for perspective and thoughtful analysis. Patience? Puh-leeze.
McIlroy made his own observations about the ever-changing narratives during his eight-week break because of injury.
Last year, he was alone at the top.
Then, during the summer, it was Rory and Jordan.
And now? Well, it’s a three- or four-pronged attack, depending on whether you want to lump in the majorless Fowler with the newly formed Big 3.
“We live in such a world that everything is so reactionary and everything happens so quickly,” McIlroy said at the PGA. “Eras last about six months these days instead of 20 years. With social media and everything having to be instant, it’s the world that we live in.”
Indeed, Spieth, McIlroy and the rest of the Tour’s new stars are simply getting a taste of what Woods has dealt with his entire career.
Even the most scrutinized golfer of all time recently weighed in on the sport’s shifting dynamics: “We didn’t have a Tiger Tracker where everything is tweeted about every shot I hit and where it’s placed. Trust me, I hit some shots and I went through some rounds where it was really bad, but nothing was reported. So things are scrutinized a little bit differently than when I sent through some certain parts of my career, but that is the day and age we live in.”
It’d be reasonable to expect a letdown from Spieth after he became only the third player in history to record top-4 finishes in all four majors, but he swears he’s not dealing with a major hangover.
He was asked the same questions after the Masters, The Players and the U.S. Open. Each time, he responded.
“There wasn’t a letdown this year,” he said. “I just had two bad weeks.”
So, no, his world wasn’t crashing down, and no, the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as his Twitter mentions and Instagram posts would lead you to believe.
Spieth realizes now that there is only way to stay "relevant" these days: continue to play great golf.
“You just need to keep your head down, stay focused,” he said, “and try and be the guy that people are talking about next week.”