Lynch: Jordan Spieth, Lydia Ko step back from abyss, but resurrections are rare, even for the greats

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Eamon Lynch
·5 min read
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Among the plentiful clichés permeating golf commentary, there is none more kindly yet bromidic than the assertion that a slumping star will win again simply because he or she is too good not to. It’s a polite fiction, peddled about almost every prominent professional who achieved early success only to plunge into, if not obscurity, then at least irrelevance. As analysis, it lies somewhere between sentimentality and sycophancy, but nowhere close to sound.

Golf’s recent run of resurrections began—appropriately enough, for those particular to the low-hanging fruit such narratives represent—on Easter Sunday, when Jordan Spieth won the Valero Texas Open for his first victory in almost four years. A week later, Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters triumph ended a drought of similar duration. And on Saturday, Lydia Ko completed the trifecta (or trinity) with a seven-stroke romp at the LPGA’s Lotte Championship after three years wandering the desert in search of a title.

These comebacks—particularly those of Spieth and Ko—are welcome positives for their respective Tours. Both are likable and engaging personalities whose lack of form never once manifested itself in a lack of class or professionalism. All slumps are relative, of course. The results posted by Spieth and Ko suggest they were more searching than wholly lost, with the odd encouraging hint of familiar brilliance amid too much mediocrity.

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth walks off the first tee box during the third round of the 2021 Valero Texas Open. (Photo: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports)

But whatever led them back to the winner’s circle—determination, talent, hard work, perseverance—it was assuredly not the mawkish twaddle that they were just too good not to be there again.

Just as cemeteries are full of indispensable people, lesser Tours and broadcasting booths are peopled with those thought too good not to win again. Some of the falls from grace were so precipitous as to become shorthand reference points even for casual fans.

The obvious one is David Duval. He won 13 PGA Tour titles in under four years, culminating in his Open Championship victory at Royal Lytham 20 years ago. A few months later in Japan, two days after his 30th birthday, he cashed his last winner’s check.

The Claret Jug can seem a poisoned chalice for some of its recipients. Ian Baker-Finch won it a decade before Duval, but six years later he wept in the locker room at Royal Troon when he couldn’t break 90 in the opening round. That afternoon he withdrew from the Open and quit tournament golf.

Seve Ballesteros won three Opens but was only 38 years old when the victories dried up, his swing and body decayed beyond repair. A friend of mine once asked Seve—a man not given to modesty—who would win if Europe’s ‘Big Five’ of the ‘80s faced off at their best. “Sandy would win,” Seve replied firmly. “But I would be second.” Yet Sandy—as in Lyle, Open and Masters champion—was finished even earlier than Seve, at age 34, not counting a European Seniors win and a couple of hickory events in his native Scotland.

Lyle’s Open came at Royal St. George’s, where the championship makes its overdue return (pandemic permitting) in July. Four years earlier at RSG’s, Bill Rogers won the Jug, one of seven worldwide titles the 30-year-old Texan claimed in ’81. By ’88, Rogers was working in a San Antonio pro shop, burned out and far removed from his last win. Yani Tseng won two Women’s British Opens among her five majors and 15 LPGA titles, all in a four-year span. She was 23 when the slump started. She’s now 32 with a world ranking of 1,025th. We can reach back further. Ralph Guldahl: 16 wins, three majors, done at 29.

Every one of those stars met the treacly threshold of being too good not to win again,

Ko’s win proved that fine players can rediscover the magic, but if you knew where to look the same week bore reminders that that many simply can’t, no matter how hard they try. Martin Kaymer was third in the European Tour’s Austrian Open on Sunday. The German hasn’t won since the very day he was proclaimed golf’s dominant force—June 15, 2014, the day he won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 by eight shots, a month after having won the Players Championship. He was 29 years old with two majors on a 23-win résumé. He’s now 36 but the résumé requires no updating.

Men with lesser records sail on, their careers glorious wrecks of what was once promised. Luke Donald was runner-up in the RBC Heritage five times, but this week he missed the cut for the 15th time in his last 17 starts. The former world No. 1 is almost a decade distant from his last W, and ranked 584th. Matteo Manassero won the British Amateur and made a Masters cut at age 16, and had four European Tour wins at 20. He’s now playing now on the Alps Tour, not a circuit anyone wants to play his way back to.

None of the aforementioned are working less assiduously than did Spieth and Ko, and stand as testament that talent and determination is not always sufficient for reward at the highest level. This is a capricious sport, and the road back to relevance will prove impassable for most. After her victory, Ko credited Spieth with inspiring her. She knew he had been tilling fields that had lain fallow for several seasons before his win in Texas. Perhaps hers will in turn spark someone else who knows they are good enough to win again, and who understands that none are too good not to.