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The Enduring Appeal of Jordan Spieth

From Golden Boy to slump sufferer to comeback kid, Spieth has seen it all during his nine years in professional golf. Now he’s returning to form just in time for the Masters, and his well-deserved roars await.

Scott Laven / Getty Images

You don’t need to be a golfer to have a little bit of Jordan Spieth somewhere inside your soul. For example, have you ever released a wayward bowling ball and immediately tried to scold it into submission? That’s classic Spieth, hollering at his tee shots with exhortations like, “Be enough, please just be enough!” If you’ve ever dramatically flung your body side to side like an ensqualled ship while playing Mario Kart, that’s Spieth as well: helplessly contorting his quarter-zipped frame in hopes that his golf ball, hundreds of yards away, may somehow bend too.

Have you ever taken forever to arrive at a decision, mentally hashing out every possible outcome and backtracking multiple times along the way? So has Spieth, forever and always assessing whether to use the 8-iron or the 3-wood, and then changing his mind. Ever mumbled “Go ahead!” to another driver at some intersection in a voice that they can’t hear? There he is again, the man who has yet to meet a strong breeze at which he is not moved to mutter. (If you follow that up by getting into a bickering, well-trodden argument with a loved one riding shotgun who just kinda nods while you rant, congratulations: You’re basically Spieth and Michael Greller, the pro’s longtime caddy.)

And if at some point you’ve found yourself in the midst of harried last-minute chaos just before a huge meeting is set to begin, then perhaps you’ve had a glimpse into Spieth’s recent Easter afternoon. This past Sunday, as Spieth was finishing up on the practice range at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, the 27-year-old noticed something was off with his driver, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. With his tee time only minutes away, Spieth and his team rushed to see whether it might be feasible to obtain a replacement club head.

It seemed like a fraught turn of events for Spieth, who was entering this final day of play in a tie for the tournament lead—and, more so, with the chance to fiiinally, maaaybe, break out of a yearslong drought just in time for his and everyone’s most cherished tournament, the Masters. On Twitter, multiple accounts dedicated to following and parsing Spieth’s every move shifted from counting down the seconds until their boy’s start to discussing this new hiccup with alarm.

“Rules officials are seeing what they can do here,” read a tweet from @Spieth_Tracker, which bills itself as the “largest #JordanSpieth tracker on the Internet!” Another account, @SpiethLegion—“We Track #JordanSpieth Daily!”—posted a siren emoji and wrote that it looked like Spieth would be teeing off with his existing equipment after all. When someone asked why, the account explained: “No visible damage. The damage is internal.”

Another follower couldn’t help but seize this low-hanging fruit. “Basically a metaphor for his slump,” they quipped, explaining in one fell swoop so many of Spieth’s recent struggles—as well as what’s made his recent journey so fascinating, both to those who don’t care much for golf and to those who care too much.

Prior to Sunday, Spieth had last lifted a trophy on July 23, 2017. That victory, in the Open Championship, was in many ways a distillation of all of Spieth’s greatest hits. It included a truly madcap 29-minute bogey odyssey on the 13th hole that involved hitting from between two hospitality vans. That was followed by a home stretch in which Spieth recorded three birdies and an eagle, the latter of which prompted a forever memorable “Go get that!” directive to Greller from Spieth. After the tournament, Spieth was chatty about his internal struggles, even in victory, admitting that during the long walks between holes he had trouble quieting his mind. “You can’t just go blank,” he told reporters. “You wish you could, but thoughts creep in.”

The win was one more highlight in a sterling trio of seasons, during which young Spieth won three majors—including, at age 21, the Masters—and seven other tournaments. He finished those years as the first-, fifth-, and second-ranked golfer in the world, respectively, but he became beloved by old golf heads and agog kiddos alike almost less for his victories than for the way he earned them: with his highlight-reel putts, steely focus, and meet-your-mom charm.

After winning the 2015 Masters, Spieth was assigned to share a locker at Augusta National with the late Arnold Palmer. In 2016, when Spieth blew a five-stroke Masters lead with a quadruple bogey at the infamous 12th hole, Jack Nicklaus reached out to console him. And the youngsters followed him closely, too: The guy behind the account @SpiethLegion, who is a 17-year-old living in New England, told me in a phone conversation that when Spieth first broke out on the professional scene as a teenager, that success was aspirational to him and his friends. “I think [Spieth] was very relatable,” he said, “because when he was big, he was only like five, 10 years older than most of the young fans. Which is like, I could do this soon. He wasn’t like, 40 years old.”

Except then Spieth stopped winning, and his ranking kept falling, and as the years went by pretty much everyone was left wondering what was happening—including Spieth himself.

Discussion of Spieth’s game began to include words like “tremors” and “yips.” (A long-undisclosed hand injury in 2018 couldn’t have helped.) By May 2019, he was putting up average Sunday scores of 73 and worse. Last fall, he shot an ugly 81 on a Friday at Winged Foot and missed the cut in Houston several weeks later. By the end of 2020, he had drifted down to a ranking of no. 82 in the world.

Quirks that were once oohed and ahhed over in the pages of golf magazines—like his unorthodox habit of looking at the hole, rather than at the ball, during his putting stroke; or a perfectionist streak so pronounced it made Michael Phelps feel comparatively mellow—started to be perceived as maybe part of the problem.

Spieth’s pace, once (charitably) considered deliberate, now bordered on straight-up tedious. (Three different golfer pals I chatted up about Spieth all independently complained about his speed of play.) And his many, many conversations—with the ball, with his clubs, with his caddy, with the weather, all of it captured clearly by boom mics—went from whimsical to mildly worrisome. Increasingly, watching a Spieth round, with all its attendant chatter and frustration and half-genuine self-deprecation, sounded a lot like being out on the course with some buddies—both for better and for worse.

Golf is an inherently nosy pursuit, a game of unsolicited advice and have-you-trieds that’s obsessed not so much with perfection as with the impossibility of perfection’s attainment. It is an activity in which you play the game of your life, and then afterward remark, “If it weren’t for that one woodchip/shoelace/gust, I coulda birdied 16.” It is the kind of sport where some minor detail—the angle of an elbow, the shape of a frown—is noticed and used to extrapolate the trajectory of a career. In Spieth’s case, though, trying to predict his future based on his present has been a volatile endeavor, in both directions: He went from being talked about as Arnold’s and Tiger’s heir apparent to being mentioned in the same breath as boom-bust cautionary tales like David Duval and Ian Baker-Finch. All this, and he’s still only 27 years old.

Going into last weekend’s Texas Open, Spieth was questioned almost as much about the upcoming Masters as he was about the more immediate competition right in front of him. But rather than brushing off big-picture questions about the weeks ahead, he seemed to relish the opportunity to talk about the place where he won his green jacket in better days.

“Drive down Magnolia Lane, for me it’s like, ‘It’s go time,’” Spieth told reporters last Tuesday. “Regardless of if you just won or if you’ve missed the previous cut, it really makes no difference to me in my confidence level when I pull into Magnolia Lane.”

Through three rounds at the Valero, it seemed like he’d be arriving in Georgia with plenty of momentum, even if he claimed that didn’t matter. His long game was popping off. He looked lightened after sinking a like-old-times putt midway through his round on Saturday in front of a crowd that was thrilled both by being able to see golf in person, and also by seeing their native Texan brother looking like he might be back to his old tricks.

On Sunday, though, Spieth’s first tee shot went way left, and his second tee shot landed in a bunker, all of which was immediately reported upon by the various tracker Twitter accounts and whispery TV correspondent Notah Begay. It was difficult not to fret that this hectic start might spiral into another disappointment; to wonder whether that driver seemingly not feeling right might lead to the rest of the day going all wrong.

But Spieth picked up steam, nailing his tee shot on the third hole and his chip shot on the fourth and keeping pace with a surging Charley Hoffman. The two traded clutch shots in a long, eminently watchable, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better round: A birdie on 12 gave Spieth breathing room until a Hoffman 20-foot birdie putt on 16 took some away. Spieth’s long and short game found perfect harmony on the par-4 17th, giving him a two-stroke lead heading toward the finish. And while he tested that advantage just a bit, finding the rough and having to lay up at 18, he nevertheless found himself with a ceremonial gimme putt for the win.

Afterward, Spieth looked more relieved than anything else, reaching down to pick up his ball and then squeezing it in his fist by his side, as if to remind himself this was all real. “It’s been a journey,” he said. But in his post-round presser, he was also coolly defiant. When a reporter asked him whether there was, wink wink nudge nudge, “anything that in your view has been made too much of since 2017,” Jordan stopped short of crowing about his achievement or boasting that rumors of his demise had been greatly exaggerated. Instead, he pointed out that no one ever pestered the likes of Hoffman about how many years it had been since he’s won. “If it’s a massive deal to not win over a three-year time frame,” Spieth said, “it means that you were pretty successful before that.”

And for a time, he sure was—including and especially at Augusta National.

Last fall, in an oddball November Masters that was held without fans (and without those famous azaleas in season), Spieth finished a distant 46th as his buddy Dustin Johnson powered his way to the win. But even though that was only half a year ago, it feels to many—including Spieth—like it was worlds away. Last week, Spieth said that springtime at Augusta favors players who have more experience navigating the difficult course and know the best ways to stop errors from compounding. There’s a trick, he said, to finessing the ball “into a hole where if it doesn’t quite work out, it’s missed in the correct spot.” There’s also a trick to not thinking so hard about it that you ensure the not-working-out part.

The other difference between the most recent Masters and this one is the way Spieth has played leading up to it. At the Valero, Spieth yelled at his equipment and at his environment as much as ever, and he spent a lot of time talking to/at Greller. (“Jordan needs someone like Michael where he just seems to be there to listen,” @SpiethLegion told me. “Sometimes Jordan will talk and talk way too much, to the point where most people get really annoyed, [but] Michael won’t get annoyed.”) But Spieth also maintained a level of control that felt like the good old times. He gained more strokes from tee to green—12.89 over 72 holes—than he had in any other of his PGA Tour wins, and he quickly moved beyond his occasional mistakes before they had a chance to accumulate. In his post-win TV interview, having shed the monkey from his Under-Armoured back, Spieth pointed out that some of his best decisions over the past few years were to avoid making drastic ones.

Instead of abandoning his caddy and his coach as things went south, he stuck with them; rather than overreact to little misses here and there early last weekend, he stayed the course and stuck to his swing and his plan. He explained that he’d been trying to maintain “lightness” in his being. Far from being internal or invisible, that lightness has started to shine through. It’s safe to say that Spieth will be the crowd favorite this weekend at Augusta National, now that the course will once again have some semblance of a crowd. (And he’s already been declared the Jim Nantz pick.)

All indications are that this weekend’s tournament will be played on a surface that is firm, fast, and capable of magnifying even the tiniest over-rotation of the ball. You don’t have to be a golfer to understand the frustration of watching a shot you hit mostly perfect go speeding down a verdant hillside and head straight into oblivion—although if you are a golfer, you almost certainly know it too well. The same is true for the opposite scenario, though, the dreamier and more successful one: You don’t have to be a golfer to feel goosebumps when it all works out in the end, when a person claws their way back to a place they once loved, when a crowd roars to welcome back an old pal on a Sunday in Augusta.