Considering it’s a weekend that saw Leicester City take another giant step to pulling off the most improbable and romantic achievement we can recall in team sport; Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors move just one game away from breaking the greatest regular-season record set by a Chicago Bulls team featuring the same Michael Jordan whom Spieth’s parents named their son after; and a fella called Danny Willett actually end up up winning the Masters, it’s quite the achievement, albeit a dubious one, on the part of a 22-year-old who – lest we forget – a year ago few of us had ever heard of.
Instead of asking “Will they do it?” and “How did he do it?”, all we could ask each other at the water cooler yesterday was “How did he blow it?”
On a very basic level, the answer is because he’s human. One of the cruelties and fascinations about sport is that at some point it humbles everyone, and no crueller sport in that regard than golf. Almost all the greats at some point chucked away a major they’d in the bag. Even Arnie. Even Jack. Even Jordan.
We still can’t think of a more mentally tough golfer or 22-year-old athlete on the planet right now than Spieth, and part of his exceptional mental toughness is his self-awareness and realisation that he’s going to carry some mental scars from this one.
“Big picture, this one will hurt,” he’s admitted.
“It will take a while.” That’ll be a big part of his recovery: acknowledging the hurt. In fact, a big part of his semi-recovery last Sunday – birdying 13 and 15 – was acknowledging to his caddy walking off the 12th, “Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing.”
What cost him – and again, he was able to recognise this in his post-round interviews – was that he didn’t acknowledge it a hole or two earlier that he was getting tight.
As Nick Faldo, who remains only one of three men to win back-to-back Masters, once said, “The player who recognises he’s nervous is streets ahead of the guy who doesn’t.”
It’s a strange thing to say about a player who normally plays at a pace that would make the notorious Cliff ‘The Grinder’ Thorburn look like Alex Higgins playing on acid, but he needed to take his time and settle around Amen Corner last Sunday.
He was bleeding and needed to recognise it in order to stop it.
“I didn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line on 12,” he’d say afterwards. “Instead, I went up and I just put a quick swing on it.”
When you’re breathing’s off, your thinking’s off. Experts in concentration like Robert Nidffer talk about the power of effective attention is knowing which one of four quadrants your attention needs to be in at a given time.
Spieth was still in internal narrow, berating himself and catastrophising, when for a moment he needed to go internal broad and external broad – take that breath, acknowledge the tension was his body’s way of saying this was something he wanted, and then release it, and see outside himself and take in relevant outside cues, like the appropriate line.
Rory McIlroy similarly internalised matters at the same juncture in 2011. He’d speak later about how he was always looking at his shoes instead of having his head up. “I was very insular.” Spieth has also recognised since that he didn’t recognise that he was still leading the Masters.
That was a key factor in Phil Mickelson’s breakthrough win in 2004. He bogeyed two of the opening five holes on the Sunday, but used what psychologists called positive self-talk or reframing.
“As I walk off the (fifth) green, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I lost another shot to par. Those things happen. I’m going to make mistakes like that. But it’s much better to make a bogey as opposed to a double bogey. At least I’m still tied for the lead.”
It was the same when he bogeyed nine. “The good news I’m still only one shot off the lead.” When he hit a poor tee shot on the 10th, that rested on a pine cone, he smiled to himself, “Wow, cool!”
Even by smiling he released any surplus tension and triggered serotonin, a biochemical that allowed him swing freer.
Instead Spieth, by his own admission, forgot that he was still in the lead, that he’d just had a blip. He panicked and played more conservatively, tightly.
He deviated from the shot his caddie had suggested, and then after landing in the water, he chose a spot about 80 yards from the flagstick instead of going to the designated drop zone.
Even within twenty minutes of signing his card, he knew what he’d done wrong, what he should have done, and what to do the next time he’s in that situation. Take the deep breath. Get out of internal narrow. Reframe like Mickelson.
Maybe have your caddy primed to relieve a pressurised situation, like on 12th, “God, Jordan, you like to keep it interesting anyway!” Or have a trigger word to illicit the feeling you want to have in your swing, like Sam Snead had “Oily” for his.
Or have a safe spot; the legendary Phil Jackson found that when his players’ minds were racing in a game and not processing what he was saying in a timeout, he’d get them to practise a quick visualisation exercise and recall some place they felt really secure; then with their minds and heart-rate settled, they’d tune in to him and the task and challenge ahead.
Jordan Spieth choked last Sunday, but that hardly makes him a choker. Even last Sunday night, hurting as he was, he was processing it, localising it. He just had to take a deep breath.
He just had to work on some shots that had been causing him difficulty all weekend and even all season. And he’d just had a bad – okay, horrendous – 30 minutes.
The way he processed it, and pointed out that he’d recovered quite well thereafter, reminded us of when Liam Sheedy was asked before the 2009 league final about the prospect of facing a Kilkenny team which had blitzed his team for five first-half goals the previous month.
Sheedy pointed out that his team had had one bad half out of 14 over the spring and they weren’t going to let it define them. That viewpoint would inform the energy and mindset that would fire his team’s displays in that 2009 league final, All Ireland final, and ultimately 2010 All Ireland final win.
The same Michael Jordan Spieth is named after once famously spoke about all the missed shots and failures he had in his career – and that is why he became the most famous winner and clutch-performer the sport and possibly sport has known.
Spieth may not dominate like Jordan – or Tiger Woods – did his sport, but it’s just a case of when, not if, he wins another major.
The reason he won last year’s Masters was because he lost, and learned from, the previous year’s. And he’ll win more majors because of how he lost this one.