Confession: I’m a pretty big fan.
On Sunday of the 2013 Tour Championship, I found myself on the former 15th hole at East Lake Golf Club – an uphill, 550-yard par 5 that bends slightly to the right as it ascends through the rolling Atlanta terrain. East Lake has always been one of my favorite Tour venues, and the 15th is a sneaky good place to watch, as it used to be the players’ last real chance at a birdie.
As I waited for the leaders to come through, I noticed one name making a furious charge up the leaderboard: 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. Considering that he had already won the #FifthMajor and made the FedEx Cup top 30 with only five months of Tour status, the golf world was watching to see if this kid was the real thing. I wasn’t expecting what happened on that fifteenth hole.
Driver, long iron to 20 feet, center of the cup. Eagle. And the best part: he looked like he expected it. He finished that round in 64, a remarkable score on a tough golf course, to finish T2 in a field of the Tour’s 30 best players, and he was expecting it.
I was hooked.
Four years later, on a Sunday afternoon at Royal Birkdale, Spieth once again eagled the 69th hole of a tournament; this time, the world was watching. The gallery erupted. Spieth celebrated. I threw things around my living room. Soly seized up from a #sauce overdose. Poor Kuch could only look on as he realized that he would be eating, not drinking, from his trophy. It was a Spieth fan’s nirvana.
Golf media loves to draw Spieth comparisons. “Spieth has some of Tiger’s mental toughness.” “His short game is the most creative since Phil.” “He’s on pace with Nicklaus for majors at his age.” Some of these comparisons are probably accurate, some of them might be premature, and some of them might even be understatements. Those issues are above my pay grade (which, incidentally, is zero. Need to talk to Tron about that one.).
But here’s what I know: watching Spieth is utterly captivating. He draws a viewer into professional golf like no other player can. He is just human enough, shows just enough weakness, hits just enough wayward tee shots or squirrely four-footers to make me think “hey, I’m not so different than this guy.” He doesn’t have the incomprehensible power of DJ or Koepka. At times, he looks like a complete mental mess, like when told Greller that he thought he was collapsing at Augusta, or threw a 3rd grader hissy fit at Chambers Bay on what he called “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life.” We can relate. We want to relate.
And then, almost without fail, there’s a reminder: he’s Jordan Spieth, and he is a stone-cold killer.
Birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, par.
You see, I am 20 years old, and my early years of conscious golf-watching were summarized more by a 2009 Y.E. Yang upset than a 2000 Pebble Beach runaway victory. I began loving golf in the age where Stewart Cink and Lucas Glover won majors. I grew up looking for the next Tiger, someone who could assert the kind of major championship dominance that I had been too young to witness. When Rory came along, dazzling the Tour with other-worldly ball striking and an undeniable swagger, I thought we had found that man. Rory, however, has fallen victim to a mix of injuries and putting struggles, and has not had a significant, quality chance to win a major since his last win in 2014.
Then we found Jordan Spieth. I saw him at the aforementioned Tour Championship. I was excited. I remember watching him hole a bunker shot for birdie on the Sunday front nine of the 2014 Masters, only to fade down the stretch and lose to Bagdad Gerry. Maybe this kid doesn’t quite have it, I thought.
I read about Spieth’s win at the 2014 Australian Open, and watched him take the HERO World Challenge by a comfortable margin. I watched his playoff win at the 2015 Valspar as he made clutch putt after clutch putt. I told anyone who would listen (probably about three people, all related to me) that this guy was going to win the Masters. I watched him shoot a first round 64 (with a bogey on 15), back it up with a 66, and win his first major at age 21. I stayed up until 4:00am Ireland time to watch him claim the U.S. Open in remarkable fashion. I couldn’t get enough. Had golf found “the guy?”
He didn’t win the Open at St. Andrews, but he did something even more impressive: he made me believe that someone could actually win the Grand Slam. He put on a Saturday show at Whistling Straits with 6 birdies in his last 8 holes, and it took nothing less than an historic performance from Day to beat him. And for the cherry on top, he took home the FedEx Cup two months later.
Then the tide seemed to turn. We know the story of the 2016 Masters, and Spieth spent the rest of that year facing questions about it. And despite his three Tour victories since that meltdown, people were still asking questions as he teed it up this Sunday at the Open. Maybe this kid doesn’t really have it, we said, maybe 2015 was a fluke. In fact, we were practically shouting that on the 13th tee. And Spieth could hear it. Once again, we could relate to this guy spraying the ball all over the pl–
All of a sudden, he hadn’t just won, he had grabbed Kuchar’s soul, beat it into the hard-packed English soil and left it to drown helplessly in the Irish Sea. He made Haotang Li wish he had caught the earlier bus to the airport. He played five holes of golf that rival any stretch, ever.
So much for being relatable.
As a golf fan, this weekend convinced me once again that Spieth has a chance to be one of the game’s all-time greats. We saw that his major championship prowess is still there, and might even be improving.
As a Spieth fan, it reminded me of why I watch this guy, why I can’t stop watching this guy: because you never know when that polite Texan smile will give way to the ruthless killer beneath, the superhuman gear that has now won him three major championships at the age of 23. Who knows – maybe we’ll see it at the PGA Championship, and maybe we won’t.
But if I were you, I’d be watching.