Here’s the thing: Jordan Spieth, who should have just become the first golfer in history to win back-to-back Masters while leading wire-to-wire, was kind of a mess all week long.
He was intermittently irritable and unsteady and more human than he’d ever appeared before on a golf course; at one point, he was cited for slow play, and at another point, he snapped at his caddy, and after hitting a couple of wayward drives at the end of Saturday’s round, he spent at least some of his post-round press conference apparently holding a conversation with himself.
“I think it will be tough personally,” he said Saturday evening. “I mean honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind [me]. I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple holes to play from the position I was in. I’m not going to dodge the question by any means. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while, and hopefully I just sleep it off and it’s fine tomorrow. I imagine that will be the case.”
These are the kinds of undeniably human moments you’d expect to see out of a 22-year-old, and even after Spieth blew a five-stroke lead on Sunday in epic, van de Velde-ish fashion, it’s hard to hold it against him. He is still one of the best young players of this or any generation, and he will still have more chances to turn this around, but now it gets way more interesting. Because now it becomes a mental game for Spieth. Now the question is whether he has the inherent strength to get past what will be remembered as one of the epic collapses in Masters history.
Danny Willett, a 28-year-old Englishman, wound up winning the tournament on Sunday, but let’s get real here: That will largely be a footnote. Because Jordan Spieth, leading by five strokes heading into the back nine, lost this tournament far more than Willett won it. After shooting a 2-over par 74 on Friday and then struggling to the finish Saturday, Spieth appeared to right himself on the front nine Sunday. He birdied four straight holes to put distance between him and the field, to the point that it seemed like a foregone conclusion, and that no one would catch him.
“I didn’t think it’d come this soon,” Spieth said in an interview clip on CBS, and then he spoke about how, since he was no longer playing for job security, he could afford to take more chances. And then a moment after that clip played, after Spieth had bogeyed 10, it really began to fall apart. Spieth spun his approach shot within a few feet of the pin on the 11th, then missed a par putt. His lead shrunk to one shot over the field, and then he put his tee shot into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th, and after taking a drop, he put another ball into the water. He finished with a quadruple-bogey 7, the leaderboard entirely flipped, his chances now slim (though he did make an abbreviated comeback in the final holes to finish tied for second). This is the hole at Augusta National that had undone dozens before him, and now it had undone the next great threat to all of golf’s most coveted records.
Even if he’d won this tournament, Spieth would never hold the cultural cachet of Tiger Woods. But in terms of pure accomplishment, he certainly had a head start. To play golf at this level at a major tournament at senior-year-of-college age is exceedingly difficult. To do it two years in a row at a pace even Woods did not set – Woods won his third major championship, the 2000 U.S. Open, at age 24 – would have been one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of the sport. But now Jordan Spieth’s most threatening opponent appears to be himself, and on Sunday he proved he, too, can succumb to the dark thoughts that have deep-sixed so many promising careers in the past.
Maybe this moment makes him stronger. Or maybe he vanishes into the ether, as so many others have done. Maybe it forever scars his psyche, the way it did for Greg Norman some 20 years ago. Sunday was Jordan Spieth’s greatest failure; what comes now is his greatest test. Either he powers through it and rights himself and finds a way to chase after the records set by Woods and Jack Nicklaus before him, or this becomes a line of demarcation, a moment when all that promise fades into self-doubt. That he managed to nearly claw back after that disastrous stretch is probably a good sign. But Spieth wouldn’t be the first golfer who lost himself in Rae’s Creek. The question now is how long it will take to put it behind him, if he ever does.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb