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Friday, April 17, 2015

Golf and Character: My Take on Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth's Thank You Note
This thank you note from 15-year old Jordan Spieth rolled across my Facebook page recently.  It says much about the character of its author and also suggest much about the sport he loves.

I've long believed that because of its nature the game of golf provides a lens through which the interior character of individual golfers is revealed.  Even in team events like the Curtis Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup and their various spin-offs, collective success or failure is the cumulative product of individual performance rather than the result of a collaborative effort.

In golf there's no equivalent to baseball's relief pitcher or football's field goal kicker.  There are no time outs that allow for a pep talk from the coach or a cooling off from the intensity of competition, no switching from offensive to defensive squads.

Further, golf doesn't have "opponents."  From the first tee shot to the last putt, golfers are contesting, against each other to be sure but, ultimately, against the golf course and the theoretical abstract that Bobby Jones described as Old Man Par.  Golf is a sport that's played in solitude, at once terrifying and comforting, simultaneously opaquely invisible and utterly familiar.   As a result, golf provides a playing ground where individual character is built and where it's starkly tested.  Last week Jordan Spieth took that character test for the second time on Augusta National Golf Club's hallowed ground and he passed with flying colors.

Much has been written recently about Jordan Spieth as he's transitioned from one of a number of Young Turks on the PGA Tour likely to make a charge at the Cultural Icon slot Tiger Woods has vacated to his current position as leader of the pack.

While Nike gambled that Tiger's heir apparent would be Rory McIlroy, that turned out not to be the case, at least for the moment.  The green jacket slipped through the grasp of the world's top-ranked golfer for the 4th time.

Spieth's four-day, record-making tour de force around the Augusta National track -- a wire-to-wire win that hasn't been accomplished for a generation -- was certainly impressive and had most of us who love the game cheering him on from behind the physical and virtual ropes.  I confess that by Sunday afternoon when the young guy from Dallas made the turn I was holding my breath every time he hit the ball.

And when he gave back that shot that would have taken him beyond Tiger's record and claimed his own green jacket with a score that kept him even with the Big Cat, I momentarily lost sight of the fact that Spieth has achieved the goal he'd set for himself six years earlier.  Jordan Spieth was rightly competing against Old Man Par, not the mythos of Tiger Woods.  That's why he explained his victory as "this is the way I should be playing."

Much has been made in the electronic press about Spieth's financial success, beginning with his new house, implicitly posing the unasked question: What does a 21-year old single guy need with a $2.7 million gated mansion?  Then, in the wake of his Masters victory, a new wave of press commentary focused on his increased value, driven, I sense, by a thinly disguised envy of the spike in earning power his triumph in Augusta has generated.

Spieth's understated Twitter response to the endorsement and sponsorship bonanza that has predictably followed his Masters win -- I'm enjoying the business side of golf -- lets me know his feet are firmly on the ground.

Jordan Spieth's selfie from the NYC Empire State Building
Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, less attention has been focused on the relationship between hard work and the achievement of long-term goals that Jordan Spieth's Masters victory represents.  Spieth's been cast into a Cinderella-type model that's far from accurate.  He's a scholarship kid who's worked hard to get a shot at a goal he set when he was was fifteen years old.  He's a guy who plays by the rules and who honors his commitments, from Puerto Rico in 2014 to Hilton Head in 2015.  

Spieth seems to manage the stress of competition by staying in the moment and working to deliver the best he has rather than wasting his talent and energy flailing and scowling and prowling and growling.  He demands from himself an extraordinary level of excellence, and then he delivers it with an intensity that's a bit unnerving, while managing to remain both polite and affable.

It's not unseemly to enjoy the fruits of success and Jordan Spieth clearly enjoyed his madcap VIP romp through New York City during the week following his Masters victory.  Maybe he danced until dawn with a beautiful blonde model but I rather doubt it.  He's been dating the same girl since they were both in high school.  Maybe he popped champagne corks as the night turned to day in a bacchanalian romp at a a Soho disco but we didn't get any pictures from the golf paparazzi -- and surely they wouldn't have missed an opportunity to document some even marginally rowdy behavior from this guy who seems to epitomize the American ideal of young manhood.

Spieth's selfie from the top of the Empire State Building says it all for me.  Alone, on the top of the world, the 15-year old boy smiling out from the man's body, wrapped in the symbol of a goal achieved, enjoying the solitude of his moment.

What's next for Jordan Spieth?  My crystal ball tells me more of the same, but perhaps a kinder, gentler, more reasoned and measured version of athletic stardom.