Golf can be cruel. And so I suppose it’s fitting that, on the 30th anniversary of Jack’s final victory at Augusta in 1986, I felt the most emotion watching a golf tournament yesterday that I’ve felt since that fateful day. Just for the opposite reason. Jordan Spieth’s collapse, flirt with redemption, and the grace with which he handled what was not only the most difficult moment of his life, but one of the hardest events to watch in the history of sport provided all of that.
In 1986 I was not much younger than Jordan is, and my boyhood idol, Jack Nicklaus, made one last charge at Augusta, one that would turn out to be one for the ages. And while that magical Sunday has likely been chronicled to such a degree that even those of you who weren’t there or didn’t witness it unfold live could just about recount the occurrence shot for shot, the thing that you can’t get from watching replays of the experience was how emotional it was for those of us who were watching as it took place. In real time, we didn’t know that Jack would actually pull it off, and at the age of 17 I was praying desperately to see The Golden Bear get there one last time. But golf can be cruel, and with the sting of watching Tom Watson chip in on #17 at Pebble Beach to steal the ’82 U.S. Open from The Bear still fresh in my mind, the feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that Seve or Norman or even Tom Kite would ultimately rip my heart out by pulling off something similar.
Sports can be like that, and I’m a fan of most of them, but I’m not so sure any other sport can put you on that same emotional roller-coaster in quite the same way that golf can. You see my grandfather lit the golf fire in me, but I was a baseball pitcher and 1st baseman first and foremost, born in the ’69 season of the Amazin’ Mets and into a catholic family where baseball (and particularly Mets’ Baseball) was the only thing that came before a Sunday service. And despite all that, when Bill Buckner booted that infamous ground ball in the fall of ’86 to allow my beloved Mets to win their first World Series since the year I was born it didn’t effect me quite as much Nicklaus’ win did. I played a lot of basketball when I was young too, and growing up just outside of Sacramento California, The NBA’s Kings (being the only professional sports franchise in town) were nothing short of sports religion there too. From the end of the World Series each year, until pitchers and catchers reported the next spring, Kings’ basketball reigned supreme, but when the Los Angeles Lakers (with the help of some awfully poor officiating I might add) ripped us Kings fan’s hearts out in 2001 it was tough to watch, but not as tough as yesterday.
Jack Nicklaus was a true champion, gentleman, and at that time of his last Masters victory in ’86, inarguably the greatest golfer the sport had ever witnessed. He won with class and lost with grace and did so more than anyone else had done before him and since. Sometimes lost in the discussion of Jack’s 20 major championships were the 19 times he finished runner-up and had to swallow that same bitter pill we just watched Jordan choke down, including 4 times at that very same Masters. 19 times Jack Nicklaus had to watch someone else either put on that green jacket, hoist the claret jug, the Wanamaker Trophy, or the U.S. Open Trophy when he was so close he could taste it. And 19 times he swallowed that bitter pill with the same grace, class, and sportsmanship that we witnessed from young Jordan. Afterwards, Nick Faldo said that this will damage Jordan for a while, and while he’s a Masters Champion in his own right, Nicklaus had his thoughts, and when we hear Jack say, “that Jordan is a young man who will certainly learn from this experience and that there will be some good that comes out of it for him”, I think we can really have it on no better authority.
Golf can be heart-breaking, however, I think at least part of why it can be so emotional for so many of us who watched Jordan go through what he went through yesterday is at least in some small way we can all relate. We may not have all played in the Masters, but whether it’s a mini-tour event, a college tournament, our Club Championship, an Invitational, or just a Men’s or Ladies Club event, for those of us who play, we’ve all played in something over the years that has meant an awful lot to us personally, and we’ve all felt at least something similar to the nerves that Jordan felt and the helpless feeling of when it starts to unravel or slip away. The majority of fans of most other sports just can’t say that. When Jordan hit a wayward tee shot right we could all feel in the lean in his body where the ball had went, long before the cameras had even picked it up. When Jordan started Amen Corner with back to back bogeys you could almost hear the silent prayers of millions rooting for him to right the ship. When Jordan hit his second drop long into the back bunker after stunning us by hitting his first and then chunking his third into Rae’s Creek we understood, because that’s where most of us would have hit it if not even farther. And when Jordan politely asked the cameras to stay out of his face walking from the 18th green to the clubhouse once all had been concluded, we didn’t need to see his face to understand. We already felt it.
So while golf can be cruel, it can be a great teacher too. And while only time will tell if and how long it will take Jordan to recover and learn the lessons he needs to learn from what is at the very least the most devastating meltdown since Norman’s collapse at Augusta in ’96. If his following up the debacle at Rae’s Creek on #12 by making birdies at #13, #15, and almost again at #16 is any testament to his ability to bounce back then my guess is it won’t be long. I pray that he does, because while it was heart-wrenching to see golf’s new Golden Boy suffer such a inglorious finish to his chance at making history, sometimes we can learn more from and more about a man in defeat than we do in victory. For Jordan, whose record at Augusta is now one Green Jacket, followed by two runner-up finishes, he may have learned that he’s good enough to win the biggest tournaments in golf even when he doesn’t have his A, B, or possibly even his C game, but for him it’s more likely that in time more important personal lessons will come from this than the rest of us ever even know. And for the rest of us?… I pray that we learn from Jordan’s example, teach our kids to handle adversity with similar humility, and to finally remember that despite how many times we’ve heard it, there is a reason they say the Masters doesn’t really begin until the back nine on Sunday.
Can I get an Amen?…