While in the process of winning his first Masters two years ago, Jordan Spieth appeared painfully ill at ease. Not on the course, but anywhere off it.
He mumbled. He dithered. Many of his answers to simple questions sounded as if they’d been work shopped in a bathroom mirror beforehand, and still needed a lot of punching up.
But you could sense that he wanted to unleash his inner Peyton Manning.
Like America’s most telegenic former football player (a new member here at Augusta National), Spieth has a way of projecting confidence by speaking technically and at great length. It gives the impression of competence without ever risking saying something controversial.
It’s also a remarkable sales technique, which is why so many guys on used-car lots want to talk to you about torque displacement instead of price.
Apparently, all Spieth needed was a little press-conference blooding before the Manning-esque inner pitchman could be unleashed.
That guy truly arrived on Saturday as the 23-year-old Texan put himself in the frame to win his second Masters in four attempts.
On the 13th, Spieth was looking at an obstructed approach to the green through foliage. His caddy advised him to lay up. There was a bit of bickering, and Spieth asked, “What would Arnie do?”
The caddy, Michael Greller, told Spieth to go for it. He did, magnificently. Cue the trumpets.
After his recent death, Palmer’s name is on all lips here this year, but this was a little hard to credit as a spontaneous outburst.
It would have seemed less stage-managed if, upon finishing his round, Spieth had not rushed over to the CBS broadcast crew and said of the round, “You gotta play like Arnold Palmer out there.”
When Palmer won his last Masters, Spieth was minus-29 years old. Unless he’s got an old reel-to-reel in his den and a projectionist on staff, I’m having trouble believing Spieth has closely examined Palmer’s game.
When Spieth was asked about his invoking of ghosts in a postmatch presser – Question No. 1 – he was delighted.
“I’m glad [the mic] picked that up.”
He didn’t bother the charade of seeming surprised.
A great deal of this week in Augusta has been devoted to an extended wake for Palmer, both the figurative father and favourite son of this course. On Thursday, each of the thousands of spectators was given a white “Arnie’s Army” button. All of the aged members wandering around in their green jackets are wearing them, as are many of the fans.
Left unspoken is the fact that there is now a man-sized hole to fill. In time, Tiger Woods – who’s out injured and has taken pains to stay scarce – might step up to take it. He certainly has the titles. But Woods is currently stuck in a sort of golfing purgatory – no longer competitive at the very top level, but far from willing to let go. He’s not yet ready for any spiritual role.
It would seem that Spieth might like to accelerate the process a bit, and leapfrog the man in front. If he were to win here, that would give him a remarkable run of finishes in his four Masters starts – 2nd, 1st, 2nd and 1st.
Is it possible that Spieth already thinks he is the man to assume Palmer’s status as gallery favourite here? Or, at least, to use the possibility as a spur to performance?
If he just wanted to make a point – “I’m at that level” – he’s made it. On Saturday, he golfed in the aggressive, muscular fashion that made Palmer so beloved.
By comparison, all the colleagues bunched up with him at the top of the leaderboard come off a bit stiff.
Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia (having shaken off his Saturday-at-Augusta curse) are the co-leaders at six-under. Rickie Fowler is back in the frame at minus-five. Spieth is down in the third group at four-under with Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman.
Rose has a major and so the pedigree. Garcia has the sympathy. Fowler has the photogenic pout.
But the entire emotional weight of Augusta National will fall in line behind Spieth on Sunday. If his record wasn’t enough, his cunning invocation of Palmer will surely win over any holdouts.
Some athletes manufacture their own legend; some allow their play to speak for them. Spieth is in the midst of doing both. Now all he has to do is win.Report Typo/Error
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