Golf's newest Superstar: Who is the real Jordan Spieth?

Published:

Jordan Spieth is a superstar. Despite having only just turned 22 his name already belongs alongside the likes of Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. This may sound sensational – he certainly doesn’t have as many majors on his CV as these guys just yet – but the way in which he has dominated in 2015 proved he is the real deal.

Like any good story, the tale of Spieth’s rise and the resultant character of the champion we now see before us has been told in a thousand different ways, each influenced by interpretation, opinion and agenda. While the majority proclaim him as the perfect golfing messiah who is destined for greatness and is reinvigorating the sport we love, there are still some who see him as the latest in a long line of cookie-cutter pros cut from the same bland fabric – albeit one with incredible talent.

In reality the truth is somewhere in the middle. After spending the last three years on tour, talking to and being around him, Shane Ryan details the polarised views of Jordan Spieth... and the real man between them.

Jordan

The messiah

In 2014, in the process of writing my book Slaying the Tiger, I spent a lot of time around Jordan Spieth. That’s no surprise – the book focused on the rising stars of golf, and Spieth’s face, along with five others, would adorn the cover. 

Even before he won the Masters and the US Open, the hype simmered at a high level. Already, in 2013, he’d become the first teenager to win a PGA Tour event in 92 years, and for a sport desperately seeking the next Tiger Woods, Spieth represented something more than the sum of his early success – he was a beacon of hope at a time when golf was enduring a major identity crisis.

The one word you kept reading, in story after story, was ‘mature’. That was the inescapable adjective, and to see him speak was to see the word made tangible. The sentences he strung together at press conferences and post-round television interviews didn’t seem to match the child-like face, and at first, it created an almost discordant impression. Was this legitimate? How could anybody that young, especially an athlete, be so composed? He was absolutely polished years before he should have been, and the effect was staggering. Wasn’t this proof that he was special, that he could broadcast a clear, comforting message at such a young age, when most of us were still trying to find ourselves?

At the Quicken Loans National in Washington, DC last summer, I approached Spieth on the range in an attempt to secure a one-on-one interview. His team surrounded him – an agent, a caddie, and a few other hangers-on of indeterminate purpose – and gave me the usual silent, hostile treatment as I approached. I asked him if we could walk together at the pro-am the next day, and joked about how some players were looking for any excuse to be distracted during these slow, agonising rounds, and to get a break from their amateur partners – tiresome hacks who pay ten grand to play bad golf and tell tedious stories. He didn’t smile.

“Let me just say,” he intoned, “that I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.”

That’s when I knew it was all true – this was the mature champion golf needed, and an antidote to Tiger Woods, who had disgraced himself and his sport. This was the promised child star, and he was going take us all under his wing and lead us into a new era. Call me dramatic, but it looked a lot like salvation. 

The Green Jacket that followed in 2015, as well as the US Open title, came to him like inevitabilities. Of course, he became the youngest two-time major champion winner since Jack Nicklaus, and the youngest US Open Champion since Bobby Jones. Of course, he now stands poised to inherit the no.1 ranking in the world from Rory McIlroy. All of this is his birthright, and the relative struggles of 2014 were the last growing pains of a burgeoning legend.

He was more than we could have expected, but the true wonder was he was also more than we could have dreamed.

Jordan

The robot

Almost from the first time I watched him hold court in front of a gullible press, I realised Jordan Spieth was a phony. No, I take that back – he was worse than a phony. He was the kind of pre-packaged, bland, PR-crafted robot that marked the logical conclusion of the path modern athletics has taken over the past 40 years, in which players have become less interesting, less open, and less intelligent – one-dimensional gladiators with nothing to say.  For years, professional athletes had undergone a transformation, sacrificing colour to become blank slates on which you could plaster billboards and saccharine origin stories and whatever else you wanted, all in the service of making money. Spieth was the pinnacle of this evolution – bereft of personality and opinion, catering to a conservative fanbase in a conservative country, blessed with talent and discretion and not much else.

He was an emblem of cynicism. The image-makers that produced him believed in their slimy hearts that the public would be happy to lap up this vanilla superstar, content to settle for a prefab narrative, or to invent one of their own, rather than seek out the truth. And they were right – as he delivered his meaningless sound bytes, the media flew to his side, desperate and eager to please, functioning as virtual apparatchiks as his insipid message spread across the country. All the while, his handlers stood to the side, pleased with how well their new machine functioned.

On the course in 2014, Spieth found himself in contention at the Masters and the Players Championship, but he whinged his way around the course when the pressure mounted, complaining bitterly about every bad break, and he lost. Just like he lost to Graeme McDowell on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, despite an early lead. In the heat of competition, he couldn’t hide the ugly quality that lay behind all this calculated banality – a deep sense of entitlement. And after he lost, he blamed everyone but himself, adhering to the long tradition of American exceptionalism: Nothing is ever our fault. 

When you clawed your way down to the heart of Spieth, all you found was another spoiled brat. He was like any other golfer, and the polished image – always quick to return – was only covering up the latest in a line of monsters.

Yes, he went on to win the Masters and the US Open in 2015, and nearly stunned the world by doing the same at St Andrews, but those results were nothing but the supremacy of talent. Maybe he learned a psychological trick or two to achieve a deeper calm, but deep down, he was the same person.

I still remember the time I approached him about a one-on-one interview at the Quicken Loans National in 2014. He was surrounded by the suits that had painstakingly scripted his personality using years of market-based research, with the help of slack-jawed focus groups representing the worst of humanity.

I asked him if we could walk together at the pro-am the next day, and joked about how some players were looking for any excuse to be distracted during these slow, agonising rounds, and to get a break from their amateur partners – tiresome hacks who pay ten grand to play bad golf and bore the players with tedious stories. He didn’t smile. “Let me just say,” he intoned, “that I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.” It was another perfect answer from the man without a soul.

Jordan

The real Jordan Spieth

There is a third version of this story – the middle path. Not without bias, and not without conjecture, but also not so reactionary that it reads like a bad horror story or, even worse, a fairytale.

It took me a long time to grasp Spieth, and I’m not alone – he’s the most frequently misunderstood player in golf, and while the majority of opinions tend to fall on the ‘child saint’ side of the equation (particularly within the fawning media), there’s an oppositional faction that sees Spieth as a lifeless robot, with none of the magnetism that Tiger brought to the sport. 

Neither camp makes a real attempt to find the truth between the polar extremes, and that failure makes sense when you consider that our culture has devolved to where subtlety and nuance are seen as rhetorical weaknesses, if they are seen at all. We know intuitively that some narrative must be true, but it’s in our nature – and our culture – to seek out the extremes. Our vocabulary may extend beyond “good” and “evil”, but our thoughts, too often, do not.

So what happens when you take a closer look at Spieth, without resorting to easy conclusions? First of all, uncertainty – I’ll admit that even after studying him for two years, learning everything I could by research, observation, one-on-one discussions and massive press conferences, there was never a way for me to see inside his head. And it is true that he and his support team aren’t keen to give away too much of his time. Spieth needs no protection, savvy as he is, but they know that limiting his exposure creates a vacuum of information, which writers and television producers will be happy to fill with their own preconceptions. Sports media abhors ambiguity, and with somebody like Spieth, only polarity makes sense. This is how a worshipful narrative is born.

Spieth is not necessarily worthy of worship, but his cleverness allows him to transform his colours like a chameleon, and at the start of his career he made himself into all things for all people. Lately, I’ve come to hate the ubiquity of the word ‘mature’ more than ever, because it implies that Spieth is old before his time.
I don’t think that’s true. His youth is a novelty, but the critical factor here is not precocity, but simple intelligence. He’s smarter than men twice his age, and when you combine that trait with his native talent, it’s no wonder that he’s become an unstoppable force.

There is a neurotic side to Spieth, and it’s this that sabotaged him in 2014. You could see it in the way he sulked on those faltering Sundays, moaning to his caddie, lamenting his bad luck. Now, the neurotic quality remains, but it’s been replaced by the hyperactive dialogue he maintains with his caddie, his ball – “be left…oh, be left Jordan, come on, be left…no!” – and the universe at large. 

It manifests also in his obsessive preparation, and he’s fortunate to have a caddie in Michael Greller who can match that energy and aid him in his relentless planning, taking all possible outcomes into account. Anyone who watched his methodical march on Sunday at Chambers Bay, compared to the aimless golf of Dustin Johnson, knows how important this readiness has been to his recent success.

Most impressive, though, is what I’ve taken to calling the Spieth Alchemy – turning failure into gold. Realising he was a tense, talkative person, Spieth used it in the service of his game, consigning the damaging self-pity to the scrap heap. Knowing the massive pressure that comes from contending at majors, he convinced himself to see it as an advantage – “Why should it add more pressure in a negative way?” he asked at St Andrews. “If it adds pressure, it just makes me feel this is something that’s a little more special.”

These are not easy tricks for anyone, much less someone whose brain works a bit faster than ordinary. That’s what distinguishes him from other golfers. This is why failures don’t mount in his brain, limiting his future. This is why he’s special.

Spieth

And with this more genuine interpretation of the real Jordan there’s a third way to interpret that Quicken Loans pro-am situation – somewhere between the polarised views of the perfect answer of a golfing messiah destined for greatness and the robotic response of a soulless golfing machine. This is the way I really read that answer: “Let me just say,” he intoned, “that I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.”

He was sincere. He believed it. Even if there was a time in his past when the hacks annoyed him, or he wished he could skip the pro-am entirely, he had since learned to see it as another positive.

Spieth is far from boring, and he’s far from perfect – the best thing about his 2015 campaign, from my angle, is that he’s gained the confidence to let the world at large see aspects of his real, interesting personality. He still knows how to game the system, and he knows how to cure his own shortcomings, but you’d be remiss in gravitating to the polarities of mysticism or cynicism in explaining this prodigious newcomer.

There are infinite ways to tell the same story, but every tale arrives at the same conclusion. The real answer to the mystery of Spieth is simple: When someone is blessed with the gifts of physical precision, mental acuity and adaptability, that’s the sort of golfer who never stops improving. That’s the sort of golfer who becomes a champion. That’s the sort of golfer we call a genius. That’s Jordan Spieth.