The bursting of the Jordan Spieth bubble was disturbing to watch. We all had an interest in the ascent of this wonder child, and his appearances in the major tournaments were compelling TV on a level that reminded one of Tiger Woods. So young and talented and cool under pressure, yet so gracious and polite and likeable that he was the anti-Tiger. Gifted by both heredity and environment, Spieth is an interesting guy.
The prodigy’s ascent was so remarkable, so swift, that one’s every instinct suggested that our young Icarus was flying too close to the sun. And there had been signs, especially his having gone all of 3 months without a win. Of greater concern was that it had become almost impossible to buy any major product or service for which there was no provider that had purchased Mr. Spieth’s endorsement. His travel schedule was also troubling: too many distant places, too many occasions for jet lag or reverse-jet lag. Hard to believe it left him with enough energy even to play golf with his sponsors, much less compete effectively on the PGA Tour.
The warning lights were flashing during Spieth’s dazzling 66 in the first round of the Masters. Not exactly done with scotch tape and paper clips, but a great score built more around game-management and putting than around superior ball-striking. You felt the guy was a magician to be able to get so much out of so little. You also felt that he was depending more and more on the putter, while getting less and less confident in his golf swing. Like Tiger, he was losing the ability to hit the driver onto the fairway, to hit irons onto the best areas of the green. The second round was even shakier – a big lead gained and lost, and still more of the sense that the magic was tenuous, that the swing mechanics had become too suspect to permit a free-&-easy swing at the ball. The pressure on the short game grew, in tandem with the breaking-down of the long game.
The third round went from worse to much-worse: another big lead squandered, with suspect ball-striking and a near collapse on the last two holes. Two days, two big leads blown. Could he keep his composure, could he hold on for one more day?
The final round was as close to tragedy as one can come in matters that do not involve real life. For 9 holes it was vintage Spieth: adequate ball-striking, excellent game-management, astonishing putting. And then it happened: bogey on 10, bogey on 11, and then the infamous 12th hole: three consecutive shots that would have embarrassed even you or me.
The man did not collapse totally. No club-throwing, no damage inflicted on the putting surface, no slamming a club into a golf bag, no javelin-throws, no audible swearing, just a kid in great distress. After one more bogey, Spieth somehow collected himself and almost made a game of it: birdie, birdie, and near-birdie. But with the failure to make the 3rd birdie, it was over, a 5-shot lead turned into a 3-shot defeat.
What happens now? Nick Faldo, whose portfolio includes his having personally delivered the estocada to Greg Norman’s career with a victory that featured a meltdown by Norman, offered the disturbing opinion that Spieth would be “scarred” by the experience. Anyone (such as your humble scribe) who has ever succumbed to the incurable illnesses known as the “yips” and the “shanks” could only shudder and think, yes, he might not recover, this might leave a permanent mark on our prodigy.
The public Spieth was having none of that, as he pronounced complete faith in his golf swing, his “team,” and his state of mind. But one had to wonder about the private Spieth: is he doomed to spend the rest of his career burdened by the fear that he might yip the next important shot?