Norton, MA—When you’re 22 years old and you win two major championships in a single season and contend in the other two and nearly win both of them, it’s hard to argue that even with two missed cuts in a row during the FedEx Cup Playoffs that Jordan Spieth has clearly excelled beyond all expectations—even his own.
After pushing Jason Day to the max during the final major of the year at the PGA Championship, Spieth received a bonus that helped sooth the wounds in not capturing the Wannamaker Trophy at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. The Texan pushed Rory McIlroy from the top position and ascended the Mount Everest in golf—the new world number one player.
The small issue of being number one is that once you get to the top, staying there is even tougher. For two weeks, Spieth had a view that only a handful within golf have ever had—being the top dog. As the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs commenced in New Jersey with The Barclays event, Spieth was asked question after question about his ascent to the top. No question the journey in ’15 has shown the kind of quality golf only icons such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have done from a relative same age.
For whatever reason Spieth proceeded to miss his first cut at Plainfield CC—it wasn’t even close. Rationales were offered—Jordan was using a new Titleist set of irons and he did not really like the way Plainfield set-up to his game. At no time did Spieth acknowledge these excuses. He said clearly that his play was just not what it needed to be.
What’s refreshing about Spieth is that he demonstrates a maturity far beyond his age. Spieth says things plainly. He’s aware that golf, like any other sport, is a numbers driven reality. You shoot low scores, you hang around for the weekend. You shoot high numbers, you hightail it to the next event and try to figure out what went wrong.
Spieth left Plainfield and lost his number one ranking in the process. Yesterday’s headline became paper scraps at the bottom of the bird cage. In heading to the second leg of the Playoffs, Jordan expressed confidence all would be well at TPC Boston. Despite his positive approach, once again Spieth failed to come close to making the final 36 holes.
The marvelous things about sports is how one can be exalted one week and crucified the next. To get an idea on the kind of year Spieth had prior to Plainfield, he had won four times and placed in the top ten no less than 12 times in 22 events, with four second place finishes. And, one cannot say enough times how very close he had come to snaring all four major championships in a given year.
Golf is a funny game because the fine line between the very top players is exactly that—very fine. Bad bounces can derail a round. Breaks you got the previous week can go against you. Mother Nature of all things can play a major role and the roll of the ball on any putting green is no different than dice bouncing off the wall of a crap table.
Perspective is an important thing because when a golfer misses a cut, the fragile psyche for each of the world’s best players can be impacted. When you miss two consecutive cuts—something Spieth has not done during his short time on the PGA Tour—one has to wonder how will it impact the rest of his play as the final few events for this season will be contested?
Amazingly, if someone had said as the Playoffs were to commence, that any other player besides Spieth would be named Player-of-the-Year, it would likely result in serious laughter. No one is laughing any longer. Jason Day has clearly jettisoned himself into the discussion and while winning two major in a year is a herculean achievement for any player—especially for someone who turned 22 in late July—the final two events in the FedEx Playoffs may likely determine which player receives that high honor.
When Spieth was hunting McIlroy for the top position in the rankings his poise and utter relentlessness was a thing to behold. Just goes to show the old axiom—being the hunter is a bit more easy on the nerves than being the hunted.
The Playoffs will resume in Chicago after a week off and once again Spieth has returned to the number one slot—primarily because of the way points are tabulated during a two-year rollover period. Going to the Windy City will provide Spieth with another opportunity to show how he can handle the view from the top.
What many people do not often think about is how such greats as Nicklaus and Woods—even Greg Norman—handled the pressure in being at the top of the golf pyramid for such prolonged times.
No doubt when Spieth hits Chicago the questions will come from all corners of the media asking him to comment on what happened in the last two starts. Getting a clear vibe on how Spieth approaches the week could come very early in the manner by his response to questions—often times redundant ones. Spieth had the opportunity after missing the Barclays cut to head to nearby Baltusrol—site of the ’16 PGA Championship—and play with fellow competitor Rickie Fowler who also missed the cut at Plainfield. Fowler showed his skills in forgetting his play in the Garden State at Plainfield and then winning a tough-as-nails come from behind effort at The Deutsche Bank Championship.
The ball is now with Jordan. The more you accomplish in sports, the more becomes expected. Spieth has produced a style of winning golf that is less about strength and distance and more about pinpoint accuracy and a deft putting touch which has had until the two missed cuts no equal in the game.
Jordan’s journey has been a ride that seemed like it would only go higher. Like all good rollercoasters Spieth has taken a quick plunge—possibly the next turn will provide the kind of exhilaration we have been blessed to watch this season. In some ways missing two straight cuts showed a human side to Jordan—something that Tiger Woods has had to endure for all of the ’15 season. Humility is what golf teaches.
Golf is not an easy game and what you did yesterday has no standing to the day ahead. Spieth fell off the bull ride—now it’s time to get back off the ground, shake off the dust, and relish the battle ahead. Jordan’s journey heads to Chicago for his first gut check moment. How he handles the moment will show not only much about him now, but what he’s learned for the longer journey that lies ahead in his career.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.