Jordan Spieth Has a Champion’s Character On and Off Course

April 13, 2015

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth is rich, suddenly famous and the envy of every golfer in the world at the moment, but he is also 21 years old. So you can imagine how hard it must have been for him to stand on the practice putting green at Augusta National on Sunday evening and do something that would terrify most people: give an impromptu speech.

He’d already won the Masters and stopped by Butler Cabin for an interview on national TV. He had listened to directions on where to go and what to do — and admitted to last year’s champion, Bubba Watson, that he wasn’t processing a word anybody said. They were on Earth, but he was not. Then he went to speak on the green, with a big crowd around him, and what did he do?

He thanked Augusta National members, the volunteers (“it’s really underrated what you guys do,”), the staff, his family and the “patrons”. He thanked his caddie, Michael Greller, a former math teacher whom Spieth kept when most people in golf would have advised him to hire a more experienced man. Every word was just about perfect. You could almost feel the pride coming from his parents.

Even later, when Spieth (accurately) said that Justin Rose barely missed a few putts that could have made the finish more interesting, he said, “If he had made –” and then he stopped. He reached into his bagful of polite and came up with this: “If a couple of those had dropped …” The subtle rephrasing made it sound as if Rose was the victim of tough luck than even the mildest criticism.

All week, Spieth seemed immune to pressure. That would be cool if it were true, but it’s not. Being immune would make it easy. As he said on that practice green, with his hat off and his expanding forehead in full view: “There is a reason I have a hairline like this. It’s stressful, what we do on a daily basis.”

There is a reason you don’t see many golfers go wire to wire in a major: Sleeping on a lead is not restful. Spieth said he slept well on Thursday, O.K. on Friday, and not so well after a Saturday night viewing of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Evidently he had a hard time forgetting Rose and Phil Mickelson, who were lurking on the leader board, and maybe his mind wandered to Bobby Jones, too.

No, Spieth is not immune to the pressure. He just manages it exceptionally well. As he stood over a short par putt on the 14th green, he heard a mighty roar, and Sunday roars at Augusta National form a language you learn when you get here. This roar could only mean one thing: Mickelson had eagled No. 15 to pull within four shots.

Spieth backed away from the putt, composed himself and then drained it.

He said he did not allow himself to think he had won the Masters until he walked up the 18th fairway — at which point Greller reminded him it wasn’t over. Spieth matched Tiger Woods’s Masters 72-hole record at 18 under, and both did it at age 21, but not all 18-unders are created equal. Woods won by 12 shots, which means a) Tiger’s performance was more dominant, but b) he didn’t have nearly the same pressure on him on Sunday.

At his peak, Tiger seemed superhuman. Spieth just seems superbly human.

His personality is a delightful cocktail of modesty and self-assuredness. All week, he shared his mental mistakes with the media, unprompted. But he stuck with Greller because he knew Greller was right for him, and he mastered Augusta without being a particularly long hitter, because he is that rare human who smiles when he faces a double-breaking 25-footer.

“I like to see lines,” Spieth said. “I like to see shapes, and especially on the greens, I like to see putts that break. I like being able to kind of cast something out and let it feed in.”

Finishing second last year could have fractured his confidence. Instead he kept working on his game and came back ready to win.

How did Spieth achieve such emotional balance on the course? It has to start with family — not just his mom and dad, but also his brother, Steven, a starting basketball player for Brown, and his sister, Ellie, who has special needs. Jordan has often said that Ellie helps him keep golf in perspective.

After every round last week in Houston, Ellie asked Jordan if he had won. He said his answers were, in order; “Not yet … not yet … not yet … no.” Now he can say yes, and show her the green jacket.

“I plan on not taking it off for a while,” he said on that green.

Shawn Spieth talked to his son briefly before Sunday’s round, to get him to relax. Dad wasn’t the only one preaching calm. Fellow Texan Ben Crenshaw sent Jordan a text on Sunday morning, which Spieth paraphrased: “Stay patient, this is going to be yours, you’ve got this and you’re playing great. Just keep your head down and stay focused, is I think what it said.”

That’s easy for Crenshaw to type. It wasn’t so easy for him when he was 21. Crenshaw did not win the first of his two Masters titles until he was 32; it took him so long that the billing on the cover of Sports Illustrated read, “The Masters: Ben Crenshaw Finally Wins a Big One”.

Spieth will never have to hear about “finally” or a “monkey on his back” or “best player never to have won a major,” though he might hear “damn you!” a few times from Sergio Garcia. This is a gift Spieth gave himself: a career without that pressure of trying to win his first major. Of course, he hadn’t even left the course when he said he wants to win more majors. This is how the great ones think.

Where does Spieth go from here? Around the world — and hopefully nowhere. It’s a cliché and perhaps trite to say we hope he doesn’t change. Of course he will change. He is 21. He is supposed to change. But let’s hope when he tees off at the 2030 Masters, we still recognize that guy on the putting green, thanking everybody in sight and appreciating his good fortune.

At the end of his press conference, Spieth was asked to “go through his card.” This is a staple of every post-round session: The player says things such as, “On eight, driver, five-iron, had a downhill 20-footer, hit it a bit too hard, made the five-footer coming back for birdie.” It can be duller than it sounds. But it only takes a minute, and it can be worthwhile because reporters get a play-by-play that is more nuanced than what you see on Internet shot-trackers or even on TV.

I didn’t need to hear Spieth go through his card. I left the room, walked up a hill to the clubhouse, poked my head in a door to see if I was allowed in (you never know at Augusta), walked in, interviewed nobody, walked around a bit more with a couple of writer friends, and finally walked back down the hill … where I discovered Spieth in the interview room.

Somebody asked: “Did they bring him back in?” Nope. He was still going through his card! I don’t know how long it took, but it had to be a Masters record. I don’t know how many of my colleagues are building their stories around Spieth’s par on the 2nd hole, but my best guess is zero. Still, we now know what Spieth hit on each shot; how his club choices the previous three days influenced him; that he thinks he should have pitched the ball from off the green instead of putting it: that he misread the short birdie putt. And that was one of his shorter hole summaries. The answer covered more than two pages of the transcript.

He had places to go, you know. People to see. He had family waiting and sponsors clamoring, an agent ready to get into a golf cart with him and rich folks in green jackets eager to show him how important he now is. Spieth was more concerned with being fair to the people in front of him. That’s your 2015 Masters champion. He’s pretty good at golf, too.

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