For a mental health exercise, Jordan Spieth should review Arnold Palmer’s knee-buckle in the 1961 Masters. Palmer came to the 18th hole with a one-stroke lead over Gary Player, needing only a par. First he hit in a bunker, then over the green into a TV tower. Double bogey. In other words, it happens. Sometimes even the greats give away majors in embarrassing ways.
If Spieth lets his harrowing experience in the final round of The Masters alter the trajectory of his career, then he is not who we thought he was, namely the next great player. “This one will hurt,” Spieth said, but he shouldn’t let it scar. Some day his quadruple bogey at the 12th hole in the final round will seem merely a curious formative episode, an interesting blot in a record-book career. The true greats don’t let an isolated humiliation define them – because they know it’s the cost of trying.
The back nine of Augusta on a Sunday required Spieth to find the equipoise between two warring impulses: be aggressive and to be conservative. Amen Corner especially makes you play with your wits – and it requires those wits to travel through the neurological path to the wrists and hands, which sometimes won’t cooperate for even the most veteran players. Over most of the round, Spieth was so sedate he seemed almost narcoleptic. But on that par-3 12th tee, where circling winds hovered over azalea-ringed Rae’s Creek, he inexplicably hurried up, seized a club and splashed his ball into the water.
And then he did what a lot of young people do, compounded the interest on an error in judgment with another. Sinking under the weight of embarrassment and expectation, he kicked a slab of turf in the air and dumped a second ball into the creek. “Boy, you wonder about not only just the tee shot on 12,” Spieth said later, “but why can’t you just control the second shot, you know, and make 5 at worse, and you’re still tied for the lead?”
Because you’re still young, and it’s really, really hard to do, that’s why. The gods who govern both math and golf do not allow such consistency as Spieth has displayed over the last two seasons without a dose of punishment. Spieth was seeking his third major championship victory in the last five, and he was also trying to do something no one ever had before, win two consecutive Masters by leading for eight straight rounds. That just doesn’t happen. It’s too hard. The fact is, he was due for a hard fall from that great height, and anyway, he had been fighting bad swings all week.
For another dose of psychotherapy Spieth should peruse the results of the 1939 U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club, where Sam Snead needed just a par to win, but triple bogeyed to finish fifth, while Byron Nelson won in a playoff. And he should look hard at the 1971 Masters, when even Jack Nicklaus gave one away, three-putting four times in the final round to lose to Charles Coody by two strokes.
The record book shows that Nicklaus, Palmer, Snead and Nelson finished second in more majors than they won. Sometimes in excruciating ways.
It is Spieth’s job, in the painful aftermath of Augusta, to understand just how much heartbreak will be required of him if he wants to be that caliber of player. Losing tough is the cost of that kind of aspiration. Brain researchers have long known that champions acquire a remarkable brand of neuroplasticity. They literally learn to be good losers – to take a hard dispassionate look at what they did wrong, fix it in their minds, and go on to try again. Canadian researchers studied Olympic-caliber swimmers who improved the most, and found their brain scans showed less emotional activity in the amygdala, and more activation in the motor and frontal parts of the brain that control focus.
This is where Spieth has to make the transition from a kid who had a couple of hot seasons to a mature champion who can win over decades. You could see him trying. You could see him still searching for that kind of clinical composure after it was all over on Sunday, trying to stride manfully off the course, and not snap too harshly at a peepshow camera when he knew his face was about to fall into shards. You could see it during the ceremonies as he stood so impeccably stockstill, with that hair that looked slicked down by his mother.
So many times phenoms seem to be just playing at adult life. They win fast and try to hurry up their aging process to meet their success; they make business deals and even marriages that look right, and set up house. They pretend to be solid and pulled together despite confusions of every type. They have to cover as best they can the gap between who they pretend to be and who they are, until they catch up to themselves. Spieth appears to have more emotional ballast than most, but he is undoubtedly dealing with some of this. It’s not so surprising, in retrospect, that he suddenly remembered he was just 22 on that 12th tee, after playing like a 40-year-old for the better part of two years.
This is Spieth’s challenge: to feed his ambition with the hurt of the loss, yet not take it so hard that it damages his still-forming confidence and psyche. The most wonderful thing about Spieth’s play over the last several majors is that he hasn’t been afraid of the stakes, or the consequences, of chasing historical accomplishments. It would be a shame if he were to suddenly become afraid of losing.
“I think the whole golfing world feels for Jordan Spieth,” Nicklaus said on Twitter. “He had a chance to do something truly special and something very few have done before – and be the youngest to accomplish that – and he just didn’t pull through.” But Nicklaus also promised, “There will be some good that comes out of this for him.”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org