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Golf fans learned early that rooting for Jordan Spieth is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, the emotional equivalent of riding shotgun while your tipsy grandpa pilots a wobbly truck down a narrow mountain pass with no guardrails. And that’s on his best days.
Over the past two stops, Spieth has provided the PGA Tour with a jolt of birr that casual fans might not have even noticed was missing. Missing, presumed lost. He had recorded just two top-10 finishes since he was last on the Monterey Peninsula, and one of those came a week ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Just as he did at TPC Scottsdale, Spieth let a 54-hole lead slip away Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but these have been 10 days that should go some way to rebooting the boy king.
In the almost four years since Spieth’s last PGA Tour victory, a period during which he’s been beset with swing woes, announcers have trafficked in the lazy trope that he will win again because he’s simply too good a player not to, the kind of indolent analysis which ignores the reality that an athlete’s pinnacle—even for the greatest—can sometimes be perilously close to their end.
See: Wilander, Mats.
In 1988, Wilander won three of the four Grand Slams in tennis, giving him seven majors among 32 career singles titles. He was No. 1 in the world and just 24 years old. After 1988, the Swede added only one insignificant victory in the remaining eight seasons he competed on the ATP Tour and never again came close to winning a Slam.
Spieth’s struggles since claiming the Claret Jug at age 24 in 2017 have appeared almost insurmountable in stark relief to the performances of his rivals, as Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas all enjoyed sublime stretches of form. His misses with the big stick were so wild as to be worthy only of hackers and golf writers. He developed too an unsettling shakiness with the short stick, and even the best iron player in the world can’t adequately compensate for liabilities at either end of the hole. His plaintive cries—directed first to his errant golf ball and then to his caddie, Michael Greller—suggested an anguished golfer closer to a straitjacket than a green jacket.
It was a tortured tableau that led to predictable chatter about which member of Team Spieth would walk the plank first. Caddie? Coach? Agent? That all three are still on the job is pleasing evidence that Spieth does not take career cues from social-media commenters, or the players and instructors whispering down the range. But it all combined to make Spieth the most compelling man in golf, from the neck up. He is box office, even if we’re never quite sure if we’ll see a drama or a tragedy.
Jordan Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
T’was always thus. Even in the effervescence of his youth, Spieth’s appeal lay in his imperfections: his antsiness over the ball, his shocking waywardness off the tee, his astonishing ability to get the ball in the hole when prettier swings couldn’t, his fascinating transparency in voicing aloud the internal agonies and ecstasies of elite competitive golf that made viewers feel like they were eavesdropping on a therapy session. Spieth is proof that vanilla can be both popular and flavorful, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan who married his high school sweetheart, who never puts a foot wrong in public, who treats people (and the rulebook) with respect, who can’t even cuss with gusto when he has to reload.
The novelist James Lane Allen wrote that adversity does not build character but rather reveals it. The last few years have revealed a great deal about Spieth’s character in how he responded when the seemingly ever-upward trajectory of his career—three majors, 11 PGA Tour wins, a FedEx Cup—stalled and then spiraled. Whatever whining there was remained behind closed doors, or between him and his caddie. With every crushing disappointment, he stoically fielded questions and avoided blame games. He just put his head down and continued to plow the lonely furrow that is the life of a professional golfer.
The top-five finishes in Phoenix and Pebble Beach weren’t much by the standards of Spieth’s early career, but they weren’t nothing, certainly not to a man desperate to escape the doldrums. In the past 10 days he has authored a reminder to golf fans of how much more entertaining Sundays are on the PGA Tour when he is part of the action. And he has set a hell of an example for his peers in the locker room of how to handle things when their turn on the rack comes. Because it will, for every one of them.