Why Jordan Spieth is the most relatable (and likable) superstar in golf
Ed. note: We’ve heard the chanting outside our windows, at odd hours of the day and night, so here it is: the fourth of eight installments of Bamberger Briefly, PGA Championship-style. Previous installments: player-caddie relationships; Tiger’s memoir; Tour players’ grips.
A myth of the business is that the sportswriter doesn’t root and a cliché of the business, borne in truth, is that the sportswriter roots for the story. A famous example of the latter would be the 1971 Masters, won by Charlie Coody, with Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus finishing second. You don’t have to wonder what Dan Jenkins was thinking on that Masters Sunday afternoon.
I have been rooting for Jordan Spieth since before he turned pro, and will be rooting for him this week, at the PGA Championship at Harding Park. I’m drawn to his honesty, his intelligence, his memory, the way he interacts with his family, fans, reporters, fellow players, the wacky things he does on the golf course, his light steps in deep rough.
He’s 27 and he already has three majors: the 2015 Masters, the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2017 British Open. If he wins this week, he becomes the sixth: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods. You may know that when Sarazen did it, there was no catchy name for the feat, but now there of course is: the career Grand Slam.
At last year’s PGA — in May, at Bethpage Black — Spieth finished in a tie for 3rd, miles behind the winner Brooks Koepka. A fellow reporter and golf nut, Jeffrey Toobin, and I followed Spieth there, up and down the Bethpage hills, with Spieth’s teacher, Cameron McCormick, at times a chip shot away and looking worried. Jeff was there on a busman’s holiday. His main beat is the Supreme Court and national politics. (When he arrived at a club for a game a while back, a club employee recognized him and said with notable nonchalance, “Slow news day?”) Jeff, like me, is a Spieth-o-phile.
I asked Jeff the other day what it is about Spieth he liked so much. He said, “I love watching him because he doesn’t just talk to himself and his golf ball but because he seems to have intelligent conversations with both.”
That’s good. Spieth famously talks to himself and his golf ball on the course. The opening line of a three-part sonnet entitled “Softly,” by Spieth and edited by Alan Bastable after the 2015 Masters, begins majestically with this line:
hit it wind hit it wind just a little bit just a little bit
But Toobin’s insight here is that Spieth has a relationship with his golf ball, that it’s a two-way street. In other words, Spieth has all manner of internal battles. We all do, of course. But not many world-class athletes will admit to these internal struggles.
After he won the 2017 Open at Birkdale, Spieth described the dialogue inside him as he seemed to be kicking away the tournament. “Stuff goes into your head,” he said on that Sunday night. “I mean, we walked for two minutes, three minutes in between shots. And you can’t just go blank. You wish you could, but thoughts creep in.”
As it happens, Spieth has not won a tournament, of any kind, since then. You don’t hear people talking about the magic synchronicity between Spieth and his schoolteacher caddie, Michael Greller, anymore. Something has happened to Spieth’s boyish ease.
Justin Thomas, his close friend and fellow member of the class of ’93 (Thomas is three months older than Spieth), is, like Tiger Woods, a bachelor who lives in South Florida. They play a lot of golf together, at home and on the road. Jordan, married to his college girlfriend, is in faraway Dallas. He didn’t make Tiger’s 2019 Presidents Cup team on points and he wasn’t one of his four captain’s picks, either. Woods picked Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Patrick Reed and, about a month before the event, Rickie Fowler, after Brooks Koepka pulled out with a knee injury.
I don’t know how much that hurt Spieth, but I know how much it hurt me and I have a pretty good guess as to the pain Toobin endured, too. Jeff was trying to find hope for Spieth on the basis of his man’s T-13 finish at the Memorial last month.
We’re looking for this week to be even better.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com