Late on Sunday evening, in the fading light of Augusta National Golf Club, Jordan Spieth walked off a practice green, strolled past a line of fans and climbed aboard a green golf cart that sat near the first tee.
This was nearly 30 minutes after Spieth had claimed the 79th Masters on Sunday with a final-round 70, and after he had become the second-youngest champion in tournament history behind Tiger Woods, who was 21 years, 3 months old at the time of his landmark victory in 1997. (Spieth is 21 years, 8 months old.)
This was after he had gone wire-to-wire here at Augusta — holding the lead after all four days — and after he had become the first man in Masters history to reach 19-under par before setting on a record-tying 18-under score, 4 strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose.
This was after he walked off the 18th green and wrapped his arms around his parents, Shawn and Chris, and after he had stopped to celebrate with his brother Steven and a group of high school friends from Dallas.
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“This was arguably the greatest day of my life,” Spieth would say.
In this moment of quiet, Spieth stared straight ahead, a 21-year-old who had just conquered his “ultimate goal in life”, a prodigious young talent who had perhaps just ushered his sport into a new era. As he sat, wearing the champion’s green jacket, waiting to be taken to a post-round news conference, his caddie leaned forward and patted him on the back.
One year ago, Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, had walked off the same 18th green at the Masters after finishing second to Bubba Watson. It was a devastating moment, a 20-year-old nearly pulling off history then losing out on his dream. But standing in front of the Augusta National clubhouse on Sunday night, Greller stated that it was exactly what Spieth needed.
“I think that was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Greller said. “Not winning it.”
In the moments after last year’s loss, Shawn Spieth said the family took Jordan to dinner. And a funny thing happened. Jordan was still Jordan. There was no emotional hangover. No tears. And no excuses. If the loss left scars on the psyche of a kid just three years removed from high school, his family could not tell.
“He was convinced he would win this year, right after we walked off that green,” Shawn Spieth said. “We went back and tried to find a way to have some dinner and move on, and he did. Right then, he felt he’d win this year.”
Fast-forward one year to a quiet house in Augusta on Saturday night. After shooting 16-under par over the tournament’s first three days, Spieth sat one round away from a green jacket. He wanted to sleep, but he couldn’t. So he turned on the television and did what most 21-year-olds would do. He watched a comedy called “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
“It wasn’t the Golf Channel or Masters coverage, and it’s, I think, one of the greatest movies in the world,” Spieth said. “(I was) excited that it came on.”
Finally, Spieth said, he fell asleep around midnight, only to wake up before 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, with more than seven hours to kill before his afternoon tee time. So he waited. He sent a text message to his caddie, telling Greller that he wanted to aim for 20-under on Sunday. Then he received a text message from Ben Crenshaw, another native Texan and Masters champion. It read: “Be patient. This thing is going to be yours.”
Then he talked to his father.
“Last year, he wasn’t quite ready for it,” Shawn Spieth said after the round on Sunday. “We just talked about that, and the fact that this is the greatest game. It’s the Masters. But it is still a game.”
This was the message Spieth carried with him on Sunday, as he tamed Augusta National with a veteran’s poise and a childlike wonder.
“It’s the Masters, but it is still a game.”
Golf, of course, is filled with stories of child prodigies, from Woods to Rory McIlroy. Spieth was a prodigy, but he was of a different sort. He played other sports, for one. Team sports. He was a left-handed pitcher in baseball, a crafty shooter on the basketball floor.
“You need to learn how to win as a team,” his mother, Chris Spieth, said earlier this week. “Be a team member.”
When he was 12, though, his immense talent was evident. So his parents took him to a golf instructor in the Dallas area that would nurture his gifts. During the first few lessons, Spieth told the teacher, an Australian named Cam McCormick, that he had one goal in golf. He wanted to win the Masters.
“He’s got a vision for things,” Greller said.
In reality, Greller was talking about golf shots. But on late Sunday night, Spieth’s ceiling now seems limitless. He is ranked No. 2 in the world, and could be the future of American golf. At the moment, he could also be the best candidate to serve as a rival for McIlroy, who has already won four majors at the age of 25.
“That’s something I can still only dream about,” Spieth said.
So far, though, Spieth has proven to be pretty reliable at chasing down his dreams. Consider this moment from Sunday: Standing in the fairway at the par 5 13th, with the green jacket in his sights, Spieth struck his second shot and began yelling at his ball.
“Go!” he screamed.
Spieth had been talking, yelling and cajoling his ball all week, a habit he may have picked up from his father during rounds back in Dallas. After shooting a 64 on Thursday, one stroke off the tournament record, Spieth spoke about dialing down his verbal commands. But on Sunday, with his ball in flight, Spieth screamed into the cool Augusta evening air.
“Go!” he yelled again.
Moments later, the ball found the green. Spieth made birdie.
“That’s just who Jordan is,” Greller said. “He’s always been like that.”
This was late on Sunday night, after Spieth had become a Masters champion, but before he had slipped on the green jacket for the first time. For four days, Spieth had yelled at his ball like a carefree teenager playing a round of golf with friends. And for four days, his ball had obeyed.
Now it was over, and finally, Spieth had nothing left to say.
“It’s too difficult to sink in yet,” Spieth said. “I took my mind off this moment for the last week, to where I really couldn’t express words to you that would make sense right now.”