April 11, 2016

SHATZMAN | Does Jordan Spieth Merit the Critique?

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In an article published prior to yesterday’s final round at the Masters, ESPN senior writer Ian O’Connor wrote that, “Jordan Spieth is almost certainly going to win his second Masters title on Sunday.” He went on to assert that “there’s convincing evidence that Jordan Spieth won’t lose it.” He cited the strengths of Spieth’s game: tremendous putting, exceptional scoring at Augusta and so forth. These are the reasons that Spieth has become the face of golf, and along with his character, it is why I root for him. He finished tied for second on Sunday, three shots behind first-time Professional Golfers Association Tour winner Danny Willett.

The feature story on ESPN.com this morning, after Spieth disastrious quadruple bogey, was O’Connor’s latest, titled: “Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the Masters the most shocking in golf history.” The title made me wonder if perhaps this was an incredulous reaction to an overconfident prediction, as I recalled O’Connor’s piece from the previous day.

Spieth, attempting to repeat as Master’s champion, began Sunday’s final round with a one shot lead. The top of the leaderboard was crowded with the game’s top players, including the number one player in the world, Jason Day. Strong winds this year made for difficult scoring conditions when compared to last year. For example, Spieth won the 2015 Masters’ at -18, while Willett won Sunday only at -5.

Spieth birdied the final four holes of the front nine to take a commanding, five-stroke lead heading into the final nine. The 22-year-old then bogeyed holes 10 and 11, and after hitting consecutive shots into the water, carded his infamous quadruple-bogey on the par-three 12th. He dropped several spots on the leaderboard, and although he bounced back with birdies on two of the next three holes, he finished three strokes behind Willett.

To label Spieth’s play “the most shocking collapse in golf history” is gratuitous and unfair. I cannot help but wonder if such a title was written to attract clicks and views for ESPN. Judge for yourself whether Spieth’s “collapse” was the most shocking in golf history. At the 1999 British Open, Frenchman Jean van de Velde needed a double-bogey on the par-four 18th to win the tournament. He made seven in what was a hole of poor decisions and worse execution.

In his “most shocking” piece, O’Connor brushes-off Van de Velde’s as “more comedy than tragedy.” Is heartbreaking defeat comedy? In regards to Spieth, O’Connor notes that “there was nothing remotely funny about this one.” In the 2011 Masters, Rory McIlroy took a four-shot lead into Sunday, a one-shot lead into the final nine and then went triple-bogey, bogey and double-bogey on holes 10, 11 and 12. Was that funny, too? McIlroy finished in 15th place, ten shots behind the winner.

This year, Spieth came in second place, good for $880,000; a decent consolation. O’Connor did not mention McIlroy among those close-seconds behind Spieth’s “most those close-seconds behind Spieth’s “most shocking collapse in golf history.” Van de Velde and McIlroy are just two of many other golf “collapses,” in addition to Adam Scott, Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, etc.

But it isn’t just O’Connor’s “most shocking” claim that is bothersome. He just briefly mentions Willett’s tremendous final round where he shot a 67, the second lowest score of the tournament. Spieth peaked at -7. Willett finished at -5. So even without Spieth’s blemish on the 12th, Willett played himself into contention to win. Spieth didn’t lose the Masters. Willett won.

Also, Spieth’s “collapse” occurred on Amen Corner — the nickname, by no coincidence, given to the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta because of their difficulty. These are some of the most challenging golf holes in the world. High scores are common at Amen Corner and much of the field struggled on these holes throughout the weekend.

It is a Masters’ tradition that the defending champion dresses the new winner in his green jacket. O’Connor insists “you have never seen someone look so unhappy wearing a green jacket on Masters Sunday” as Spieth was when he crowned Willett. I watched the ceremony, and had I not seen the entire tournament, I wouldn’t have known that Spieth had lost the lead earlier in the day. He smiled as he gave Willett his jacket and patted down the collar, showing his maturity and professionalism — the likes of which are admirable at just 22-years-old. Of course he was hurting inside. Who wouldn’t be? But he certainly didn’t show it like O’Connor claims.

It seems that O’Connor sees Spieth as infallible. O’Connor notes that at last year’s Masters, as Spieth entered Sunday with a four-shot lead, he felt that Spieth “wouldn’t melt down because there was no evidence suggesting he would.” But sports aren’t fueled by evidence. Sports breed the unexpected. Predictions and probability become moot when Spieth makes a quadruple-bogey or when a team like Middle Tennessee beats Michigan State. The thrill of sport lies in its unpredictability.

At just 22-years-old, Spieth has already won two majors. In three appearances at the Masters, he has finished second, first and second, respectively. Phil Mickelson didn’t win his first of five majors until his mid-30s. After McIlroy’s “collapse” in the 2011 Masters, people wondered whether he could recover. He won the next major — the 2011 U.S. Open — by eight shots. So let’s not overhype a few bad swings by Spieth who, by the way, is listed as the favorite to win the U.S. Open in June. Losing hurts. It always does. But Jordan Spieth loses far less often than most people.