By In Stuff

The King’s Spieth

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Reporter: You haven’t missed a cut here in 25 years.”

Jack Nicklaus: “Really? We’re talking about missed cuts now?”

— Exchange before the 1992 Masters

* * *

Yes, we’re talking missed cuts now because there’s a point to be made, a point about the sheer awesomeness of Jordan Spieth, the singular golfer of the post-Tiger Woods golf world. It seems people around golf cannot have any discussion about Spieth without including a “talent” comparison between him and Rory McIlroy or Jason Day or Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka, a comparison that Spieth never seems to fare well in.

He doesn’t hit the ball as far as them, you know.

He doesn’t hit the ball as high as them, you know.

He doesn’t drive the ball particularly straight, you know.

And so on … these sorts of component measurements remind me of Jack Hartman’s definition of talent. Hartman coached Kansas State basketball for many years and had great success even though his players were famously untalented — couldn’t jump, couldn’t run, etc. When asked about this lack of talent, Hartman grumped: “Talent is just being where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Yes. This — being where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do — was the rare talent of Nicklaus in his prime, of Tiger in his prime, of Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson and Nick Faldo at their best. Sure, if you want to break down their games into slices of quote-unquote “talent,” you can do that. Jack hit the ball longer and higher and made more clutch putts than anyone of his generation. Tiger was better than anyone at just about every single part of golf. And so on.

But those elements did not make Jack or Tiger what they were. Do you know how many cuts Jack Nicklaus missed at the Majors in the 1970s? One. He missed one cut in the whole decade, and he won eight major championships, and he finished top five in 17 more.  That means in 25 of the 40 majors, he was a contender. He was always there.

Do you know how many cuts Tiger Woods at the Majors between his Masters breakthrough and his one-legged victory at the 2008 U.S. Open? One. He famously won 14 of those Majors — 14 out of 46 — and he finished top five in eleven others. He was always there.

Let’s throw in Faldo? He won his The Open championship in 1987. For the next nine-plus years — 37 major championships — he missed just one major championship cut. He won three Masters, two more Opens, but was in contention in all of them repeatedly.

These are the rarest of players … the ones you can count on. Golf, more than any other sport I think, is a sport of inconsistency, of erratic play, of good days and bad. This is why so many different players win major championships. Tiger Woods won his last major championships midway through 2008. In men’s tennis, only seven have won grand slam tournaments since then. In women’s tennis, which has been considerably more turbulent, 14 different players have won grand slams.

In men’s golf, there have been 25 different winners. TWENTY-FIVE. And each one seems to set off unrealistic expectations; Every time a Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Adam Scott or Henrik Stenson has a glorious week, we expect to see it again. “It’s a new era!” we say hopefully. But new eras rarely come along. Great golf is hard to repeat. When even the celestially talented golfers show up at a major — Rory, DJ, Jason — we don’t really know what we will get. They might blow our minds. Or they might just blow up.  Rory has missed seven major championship cuts, DJ has missed six. Neither was really in contention at this major, or the last one, or the one before that, or the one before that.

Jordan Spieth has missed one major championship cut since announcing his presence with a second-place finish at the 2014 Masters. He has made 11 major cuts in a row.

Yes, of course, it’s strange to talk about missed cuts on the day after Spieth’s insane,  incomprehensible, impossible Sunday at The Open. His collapse and revival was so out of the ordinary it did not even remind of golf; it brought to mind instead Kellen Winslow in that famous NFL playoff game, cramping up and then coming out to block a field goal, collapsing from dehydration and then returning to catch another of the 594,000 passes he caught that day.

Greg Norman is famous, sadly, for his collapse at Augusta in 1996. Arnold Palmer is famous for charging back when all seemed lost. Spieth was both on the same day.

But we are talking making cuts here because the stuff we saw from Spieth on Sunday has little to do with his specific golfing talents — he is a magnificent iron player and a great long putter and so on — and more to do with his clarity of thought. Talent is just being where you’re supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do. Spieth shows up at major championships and gets into them. If he’s playing well, his game in tune, he will put himself in position to win — the guy has led after 15 major championship rounds already, and he’s not yet 24.

But if he’s not playing especially well — if others are hitting the ball better than him — he still thinks his way through, gives himself chances, finds ways to get the ball into the hole and possibly work his way into contention. And if he’s playing kind of lousy, he STILL works out there, shaving off a shot here and there, turning double-bogeys into bogeys or pars, hanging in there until the weekend when things might take a good turn.

This is rare brilliance, an aptitude worth way more than a 325-yard drive. The Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver says he used to get his greatest kicks when his stuff was short, when his fastball was off and his slider was flat. “You’ve got nothing,” his catcher or pitching coach would say to him, and he would smile and say, “Yeah, but THEY don’t know that.”

There was a little moment on Sunday that sticks out for me now; it meant nothing at the time but looking back it sort of tells the Spieth story. He was absolutely melting down. Spieth is not a machine like Tiger was at his height, he’s an emotional player susceptible to the heat of the moment. We all saw him fall apart at No. 12 at August two years ago. He was like that the first 12 1/2 holes on Sunday. He made four bogeys those first 12 holes, missed short putts, hit a couple of shots that were jaw-droppingly bad. He had blown his lead and was tied with Matt Kuchar as they headed to the 13th.

And then came the 13th hole and the mother of all choke shots, a drive that was hit 100 yards right off the fairway, a duffer shot into the mush. At first it seemed like Spieth might not even find it even though several hundred spectators saw exactly where it landed. When they did find it, Spieth surveyed the situation and decided — bizarrely, it seemed — to go back 75 or so yards and drop his ball in a practice area by some golf trailers. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing; Johnny Miller all but pleaded with him on television to go back to the tee and start again.

 

 

But Spieth had made up his mind, and he stage directed everyone around him so that he would have an open path. He dropped his ball … it was quite a scene. There, in front of him, was a Titleist trailer and a fence and, mostly, a giant hill — beyond the hill was … well, who even know what was beyond the hill? Spieth sent his caddy Michael Greller ahead, to the top of that hill like he was a cavalry scout searching to see where the enemy was hiding. “Try to give me a round number” Spieth shouted in the hopes of getting something to work with as he hit this crazy blind shot.

Then — here was the moment — just as he was about to hit, Spieth shouted out to Greller on top of that hill, “You cannot stand there Mike!” He was right: A caddy is not allowed to stand in the line of the golfer’s shot. It was just the tiniest thing … but in that moment, leading the Open Championship, knowing that it was slipping away, about to hit one of the weirdest recovery shots in major championship golf history, he still had the presence of mind to remember that somewhat obscure rule and remind Greller that he had to move (Greller knew the rule too). This is Spieth. He doesn’t overpower a golf course the way Nicklaus or Tiger did. But he has their clarity of mind. And that’s more important.

Spieth promptly hit a good (perhaps a bit lucky) recovery shot, a good approach, made the bogey putt … and then went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie over the next four holes, probably the greatest finishing stretch anyone has ever had at The Open Championship.

Golf really is the most unpredictable of sports. But if I was to bet, I’d bet on Spieth. There are so many talented golfer out there, and they undoubtedly will have fantastic weeks and will overpower golf courses and will make everyone else, Spieth included, look overmatched. But I’ll bet on the guy who doesn’t miss cuts, who always shows up, who doesn’t give up on himself even when he’s 100 yards off line, and the obituaries are being written, and he has to hit the ball over a hill into the great unknown.

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17 Responses to The King’s Spieth

  1. Rob Smith says:

    I’ve seen players leading tournaments who appear to be collapsing, limp into the finish and barely win. I’ve seen leaders playing average golf being overtaken by someone having a hot day. I’ve seen struggling leaders totally collapse and lose. I’ve even seen players collapsing still win because everyone else was also playing poorly. I don’t recall ever seeing somebody completely collapsing, and then suddenly regroup and finish up birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, tap in par…. or anything close to that. My wife was watching in the other room and actually yelled out to me to see if I was watching after he had made eagle (I was). That’s how amazing Spieth’s performance was.

  2. DB says:

    If Spieth has a fault, it’s that his mind and game seem to wander when he’s ahead. I wouldn’t call it choking because he makes the shots he needs to when the pressure’s on, but he doesn’t bury people when he’s on top like Tiger did. Remember the Open at Chambers Bay? If he develops that killer instinct there’s no telling how many tournaments he’ll win. It does make for some great television though.

  3. Brent says:

    I’ve always thought that Hartman’s quote is oversold (Bill James uses it too at some point in the Baseball Abstracts). Chucky Williams, Mike Evans and Rolando Blackman all were 1st round picks in the NBA, with Evans, Blackman and Ed Nealy having double digit years of play in the NBA and Blackman was an All-Star for several years. Yes, Hartman was a great coach and sure, he didn’t have as much “talent” as the neighboring Jayhawks, but he wasn’t coaching a bunch of nobodies either.

  4. Rob Smith says:

    I would think Joe could also wade in on the “Jordan is not that talented, but wins because he has heart” narrative from the so called golf experts (especially at golf.com). Uhhhhh, no. He wins because he rolls in long putts and executes great shots when he needs to. If Speith wasn’t that talented, he would be making great shots and sinking long putts.

    Speith is currently 3rd on tour in overall putting and second in birdie conversion rate. I guess that’s all heart and no talent according to the geniuses over at golf.com.

    • SDG says:

      I’ve always wondered, how do sportswriters tell the difference between the athlete with god-given talent and the athlete who makes up for it with character? (Besides lazy racial stereotyping, I mean). Because it seems like that’s what most mainstream sportswriting is – attaching this particular morality play to athletes. I suppose you could make some inference by watching their training regiments and seeing if they keep trying new swings or whatever, but really, how does anyone know? Everyone was SO SURE Pete Rose was Charlie Hustle and tried harder than anyone else on the field – and look at him.

      • Rob Smith says:

        Yeah, I agree. Rose had good plate discipline and was a great singles hitter. He worked very hard at his game, but I think it would be hard to find many great players that slacked off on their practice sessions. To suggest that Rose somehow had no talent & just made up for it with hard work is pretty ridiculous. If you have no talent, you’re selling insurance by the time you’re 22 years old.

        Spieth, it is often noted, has a great short game including a great putter. Everyone likes to cite the fact that you drive for show and putt for dough. And then when someone excels at the critical short game and (surprise) wins a lot, suddenly the “experts” decide that it’s not talent, it’s heart. That’s just so incredibly silly. Also, in driving distance, he’s something like 40th, so it’s not like he’s tapping them out there. He just doesn’t hit as long as some of the goons who swing for the fences and don’t win anything. And driving is pretty overrated unless, like Tiger, you have the short game to match. The quickest was to improve your score is to shave strokes around the greens. That’s Spieth’s talent.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Very true. Larry Bird was a classic example; supposedly a slow, awkward white guy. Not athletic. Even black players bought into that idea. It’s just a nonsensical narrative. And, as for character, that’s not Larry Bird’s strong suit off the court.

        • Rob Smith says:

          The black Celtic players always laughed when other guys would call Bird “unathletic”. All you had to do is watch him play and you’d realize that was patently false. He got to the basket off the dribble somehow. He got his shot off against athletic players. He rebounded like a maniac. How do you do those things in the NBA while being unathletic? It’s one of the more silly narratives in sports. BTW: I was a huge Laker fan back in the day. There is nobody we Laker fans feared more than Larry Bird. We would have gladly labeled him as unathletic if it was remotely true. It just wasn’t.

      • MB says:

        Rose’s great talent was 20-10 eyesight. That’s a raw talent every bit as being able to jump out of the gym or run exceptionally fast.

  5. Mort says:

    Normally I don’t care a fig about golf, Joe. But a good writer will make you care about whatever he cares about. And for the time it took me to read this column, golf was my favorite sport.

  6. Bryan says:

    “probably the greatest finishing stretch anyone has ever had at The Open Championship”
    *
    Joe might be too young to remember but my grand-pappy told me about way back in 2016 when Henrik Stenson played the final 5 holes at 4 under to go from tied for the lead to win The Open by 3 strokes. Spieth does go 5 under but having two Par 5s is a big help along with a course that yielded 22 scores lower than the 69 carded by both Spieth and his pursuer Matt Kuchar that day. While Stenson cards a 63, is pursued by Phil Mickelson who cards a 65, the next best scores that day are 4 rounds of 67 or 68 with one of those rounds being Jordan Spieth’s.
    *
    Course difficulty, location of Par 5s, quality of competition and playing reminiscent of your own Master’s collapse vs playing in the final pairing with Phil at The Open who went 4 under over the final 6 holes to beat you at The Open in 2013. Spieth had the greatest finishing stretch at The Open in 371 days. Henrik simply played better golf over the finishing stretch which capped one of the greatest first 67 holes at The Open, alas his performance from so long ago is often forgotten just because it makes for compelling viewing if someone takes 22 minutes to play a shot from the driving range.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think the difference between Stenson’s round and Spieth’s round is pretty large. Stenson was on fire on his way to a 63. Spieth was anything but on fire through 13 holes. I think the point was that Spieth was on the brink of disaster and THEN closed 5 under over the last 5 holes.

      In regards to the Par 5s, the course only had two Par 5s, thus being a par 70. The two Par 5s did happen to be both late on the back 9, but I’m not sure why you cite those two particular holes as necessarily making the course easy. I don’t think anyone’s saying that Stenson’s round was anything but great. He played amazing golf the entire round. Spieth’s final five holes were just more amazing owing to the fact that he was playing so poorly through the 13th. Are you related to Stenson, or something?

  7. Tom says:

    I didn’t watch the final round, but asking others: did Spieth get away with “too much time”? I read that this whole sequence took 20 mins???

    • Rob Smith says:

      There was no time clock on it. There were rules decisions that had to be made by the officials, and when they decided on the drop point, equipment had to be moved out of the way. The crowd also had to be moved more than once. In addition, Spieth did take a lot of time to make his decision and execute the shot. Since they were the last group of the day, nobody got held up except them… and some do point out that Kuchar could have been impacted by the delay. I think that’s a stretch because Kuchar played the last few holes cautiously and pretty well, just as he had played the rest of his round. But the bottom line here is that there was no way they were going to impose a petty timing infraction on the guy leading a major golf tournament. Can you imagine the fury that would have followed about golf’s antiquated and petty rules? Nobody wanted that. It’s one thing to say that it took a long time, that’s accurate. But those that are saying that there should have been a penalty are being kind of silly.

      • Ed says:

        Spieth is an INCREDIBLY slow player and it’s one of several reasons I’m not a fan (I was at the Masters last year when he and McIlroy were paired together on Saturday… there were times were Spieth was so slow that McIlroy had already walked up to the green after hitting his approach and was just standing up there waiting for Spieth to finally hit).

        With that said, that was a unique circumstance and I’m not sure how much faster he could have gone in that scenario. Definitely didn’t deserve a timing penalty there — even if he has regularly deserved them in general.

  8. Oscar Gordon says:

    Woody Allen said it best: 80% of life is just showing up” Spieth always show up.

  9. shagster says:

    Well told Joe. Even knowing the outcome, felt as if I was watching it unfold,

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