The end came while Jordan Spieth stood in an eight-foot deep depression known as the Valley of Sin, one of those confounding patches of land on the Old Course at St. Andrews that’s fraught with enough history to earn its own biblical nickname. Spieth’s putt rolled up the hill and then rolled three inches left of the hole, and there went the notion of a Grand Slam and the idea that Spieth, at age 21, would complete the greatest modern run in the history of golf.
“How many chances do you get?” Spieth said afterward, speaking to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi with tears in his eyes, and this is not the kind of thing you’d expect a 21 year old to utter, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that Spieth is not typical at all, in the same way that Tiger Woods was not typical before him. It’s rare to find a player who can marry the physical and mental skills required to win major golf tournaments for years at a time; it happens maybe once in a generation, and the problem is that even among players of that stature, it comes and goes with cosmic impunity.
If anything, that’s the lesson of St. Andrews this year – it’s that golf, from the moment of its inception on a patch of Scottish tundra, has always been confounding and ridiculous, perhaps the least subject to dynastic control of any sport. Jordan Spieth is playing the best golf of anyone in the world right now; it’s very possible he’ll complete the “American Grand Slam” by winning the PGA Championship next month. If I were forced to bet whether Spieth would win double-digit major championships over the course of his career, I’d probably consider renting a Brinks truck to drive to Reno. But we also know now that it can all fall apart in spectacular fashion, because this is what’s happened to the last best golfer in the world; because while Spieth was coming up inches short at St. Andrews (including a regrettable four-putt on the eighth hole that wound up dooming him), Tiger Woods was miles away, flailing his way through a performance so terrible that even the AARP distanced itself from him.
It’s possible that Woods is done forever. It’s possible that the best thing for him at the moment might be to step away from golf altogether for a while, to narrow his focus on a personal life that’s been fraught with its own odd disappointments. But I also understand why Tiger keeps trying: Because there is no other sport that teases in the way golf does. After Spieth bowed out yesterday, a 39-year-old Iowa native named Zach Johnson wound up prevailing in a playoff; eight years earlier, Johnson won the Masters, and while he’d finished in the top 10 in six other majors since, it was starting to look like he might never win another, like he was one of those players who’d found the magic on a single week at Augusta and would carry that as his legacy in the sport.
But Johnson found it again when it mattered. And I imagine Spieth will too. I imagine he’ll be just fine. I imagine when he says, “I believe I’ll have plenty of opportunities like I did today,” he’s almost certainly correct. Spieth was tied for the lead after 54 holes at the 2014 Masters before succumbing to Bubba Watson, and so he’s tasted disappointment before, but he was a different golfer back then, burdened with none of the expectations he has now, none of the notions that (as bland as his personality might be) he is now the new face of the sport.
And so it’s too early to know how he might react to a disappointment like this one; it’s too early to know if the smallest seed of self-doubt might throw him off, or if this 50 percent Grand Slam is the closest Spieth will ever come to completing the cycle. How many chances do you get, Spieth asked, and the answer is, no one has any real goddamned clue. He’s walked through the valley, and it’s up to him to climb back out of it.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb