Why I Love Losers like Jordan Spieth

“They say golf is like life, but don’t believe them. Golf is more complicated than that.” — Gardner Dickinson, a longtime American tour pro

I remember watching Brian’s Song as an eleven year old trying my best not to cry in front of my sister. There is something endearing about the vulnerability of our heroes. Lou Gehrig was struck down in his prime so famously that his name became eponymous with both endurance (2,130 consecutive games played) and helpless degeneration (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS…Lou Gehrig disease)

I love winners, but somehow, I relate more closely to those who lose. I can’t imagine what it must be like to win the Masters. It’s too much. But to lose…

I can understand the agony of losers because I’m an expert. I feel closer to Jordan Spieth now after watching those gut-wrenching moments of golf frustration on Sunday. He seems even more likable if that’s possible, and more human.

I don’t have to imagine Jordan Spieth’s welling of terror in the midst of the drop zone at Rae’s Creek trying to keep the lead at the Masters while not flinching at the bottom of the swing because of an intractable thought that striking a lob wedge on the blade would send the ball deep into the darkness of man-eating azaleas.

I’ve been there. No, I haven’t hit that shot in front of millions with the lead at the Masters, but I’ve been there. I know that moment of doubt and self-loathing.

Any competitor can be gracious in victory, but most of us have been defined by failure. I’ve competed at high levels, the U.S. Amateur, NAIA All-America Team…but mostly, when I play, I lose, or should I say, I don’t finish first. Golf is extremely difficult and it reveals our darkness in lonely moments of self-loathing as well as our brilliance in exponential cauldrons of emotional fire.

Ted Williams once debated Sam Snead about the relative difficulty of hitting a baseball thrown by a pitcher with intent to either overpower or deceive a hitter. Ted needled Sam telling him how easy it was to hit a ball that was motionless, justing resting there on a tee. Mr. Snead was quick to reply, “Ted, you don’t have to go up in the stands and play your foul balls. I do.”

Golf is indeed a frustrating game, which is why I broke three wedges slamming them into the ground in anger as a teenager and trespassed with a buddy at Hillcrest Country Club on a Friday night to retrieve a 5-iron stuck high in an oak tree near the 17th fairway after I had flung it at who knows what in a moment of graceless passion.

And so I watched Jordan Spieth walk up the 18th fairway Sunday, like I was watching my own son who just happens to be the same age, as Jordan doffed his cap and patted the top of his head self-consciously exploring his androgenic alopecia as I said to myself, “Stop it Jordan…stop playing with your hair as if it’s falling out faster than your confidence. Just walk up to the green and finish, take your medicine, be a man.”

And he did. He was crestfallen, but not broken, defeated, but still a gentleman.

I bonded with Jordan yesterday in his revealing moment of vulnerability as his supreme confidence led to a moment of mythical failure.

Jordan is a modern day Achilles, the guy who was dipped in the river Styx by his mother Thetis in order to make him invulnerable. His heel wasn’t covered by the water and he was later killed by an arrow wound to his heel.

On Sunday, Jordan was dipped in Rae’s Creek by mother golf, immersed in tragic waters, shot in the heel by the gods of golfing avarice, his aim too near the flag. Once the arrow struck his heel, he knew things were coming apart, and in typical Jordan fashion, he spoke this out loud to his caddy giving voice to his fear that in this pressurized moment on the biggest stage in golf, his strength had become his weakness, he had fallen apart.

Jordan Spieth carved a divot the size of a Texas ribeye on the 12th hole at the Masters on Sunday (the swath of earth traveled nearly as far as the ball which splashed into Rae’s Creek), and I wondered how Jordan could keep from crying if he lost the Masters over an error in judgment combined with a flinch of panic that anyone who has ever played the game understands, panic at the bottom of his swing on a 70 yard pitch over water with millions watching and reacting with gasps as if he had driven an exploding trick ball into the Hindenburg as Nick Faldo was saying, “The horror, the horror.”

Jordan’s vulnerability made me think of the 10 scored on the 1st hole at Indian Springs my junior year of high school as I drilled three consecutive shots, a driver, three-wood and finally a 2 iron off the first tee and into someone’s lush back yard, out of bounds, in full view of Coach Bruno as he simply watched and shook his head.

And it made me think of why my wife rarely watches me play golf because of the horror and humor of one particular hole at Belvedere Country Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas where I recorded a prime number that is generally regarded as lucky at the casino. As I walked to the next tee, Karen casually tossed aside golf etiquette, and mentioned that I had missed one of the trees (as if given another chance I could have played the hole and hit them all instead of just three of them). That kind of hurt, because those who haven’t been in competitive golf don’t know the terror of a sudden strength-sapping  evaporation of your power to manipulate a ball with a crooked club.

Sometimes you forget how good you are. Sometimes in moments of pressure you remember your achilles heel and you fall apart. Somehow, I think Jordan is going to be alright, but just in case, as if he needs my help, here is some advice.

  1. Don’t join Men’s Hair Club.
  1. You will lose again, but not like that.
  1. It’s ironic that winning requires so much losing. And by the way, if you want to win another major, stop caring so much and just hit it.
  1. You are the best putter I’ve ever seen, better than Nicklaus, Tiger…everyone.
  1. Someday, you’ll discover that this wasn’t the worst moment of your life, but rather one of the most important.                                                                                                                   
  2. And finally, something from the Apostle Paul: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”   ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9‬ ‭

6 responses to “Why I Love Losers like Jordan Spieth”

  1. Relatedly, I guess you can answer the classic question “where were you” when Nicklaus won in ’86? I was, for some reason, home in Little Rock watching it with my dad. good memory. What got you back to Hot Springs post college? I think Belvedere has since closed and turned into a foot golf facility (oh, the horror…) ::)
    regards, dpadgett

    • Hey Sir David: Foot golf huh, seems like I’ve seen that played before, or was that a foot wedge? I remember Phil Watkins once telling me as a recruit that they got to play Belvedere as if it was a premier golf course (the sand traps were color coded) and maybe it was at the time. To answer your question, I was attending Harding getting my Masters in Accounting and playing in an Arkansas Amateur tour of some sort. Actually finished in the top ten despite the 7 on that one hole and despite Karen’s insult about the trees, I let her select a pro shop sweater from my winnings. Nicklaus in ’86 may have been playing Belvedere that day, as it was the same year…but no, I saw it from my dorm room in American Heritage as I was the dorm manager at the time.

      Warm regards and greetings to you and your family, bt

  2. As I watched Jordan I wondered what your thoughts were. Because as a mother, I felt your pain when you had bad holes or days. I love your ability to put it all in perspective and hopefully Jordan will have time to do the same. I agree with Rudy – I hope Jordan somehow gets to read this. Mom

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