What a wonderful game of Clue this is. What makes Jordan Spieth so damn good? He slayed them in Augusta with a pipe wrench, poisoned them in the Pacific Northwest and bludgeoned them at Birkdale with a candlestick. And no one can quite figure out what makes his time bomb tick. It’s a delicious mystery.
Analysts draw squiggly lines on monitors while competitors fall back on Vince Lombardi and John Wooden speeches to find ways to explain his attributes. He’s this. He’s that. He’s The Other. He’s the indescribable. It was easy to understand Tiger Woods’ golf. He hit it farther than anyone else. He hit his long irons higher than anyone else. He putted better than anyone else when he needed it. He was Jack Nicklaus. Got it.
Spieth, no doubt, despises the Golden Child nickname. It must strike him as being beyond presumptuous. Besides, there is nothing anointed about anything you have to work that hard and struggle that mightily to do. There is only one plausible explanation. Spieth is the love child of Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones.
Hagen knew he was going to hit a couple of foul balls every time he played. He took this as irrefutable fact when he walked to the first tee, like picking up a pencil and a scorecard. He didn’t know when they would come or where. Perhaps he would go sideways at a relatively harmless moment in the round or it could come when he could least afford it. To Hagen, these poor shots were nothing more than the expected arrival of a commuter train. Here comes the 8:15. The upside is that the one thing Hagen didn’t possess was the ability to shock himself. He was able to substitute “oops, there it is” for “ohmygodno!” Then, he would begin the earnest work of miracle working. Or, as Daniel Berger, put it, Jordan doing Jordan things.
When Spieth took the microphone at Royal Birkdale, he was all Bob Jones, without the Georgia drawl, of course. There was a generosity of spirit, a pride in the competition and respect for the competitor that surely would have made Jones, wherever he is, lift a glass of corn liquor in Spieth’s honor. Jones, who made the golfing mold for Nicklaus and Woods, was as much like Hagen as Harvard is like Trump University. Braggadocio, which is different than the back and forth of the well-placed needle, came as naturally to Jones as space flight.
If there is a reluctance to start carving the face of a 24-year-old on Mount Rushmore, it is because the deed is never done until it’s done, like Woods’ 19th major. The power of will seems so much more fragile than the power of, well, power. Metrics come off as woefully inadequate. Big Data needs a hug. Mere mortals fret: when will the putts stop falling? When will the explosion not go in the hole? The Hagen genes in Spieth surely would never admit that such a day is possible while the Jones genes will be around to give the Hall of Fame speech.
Jim Moriarty was a writer and photographer for Golf Digest and Golf World for 35 years. His book “Playing Through” about the players and tournaments of those decades came out in October 2016. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org