The more I watch Jordan Spieth, the more I like him. And my admiration for this precocious 22-year-old golfer from Dallas goes well beyond his ability to rack up birdies like Tiger Woods in his prime. Although Spieth finished second to Jason Day in Sunday’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits Golf Course in Wisconsin, he emerged as a championship person in the way he handled defeat and lauded the victor. Spieth showed us that sportsmanship is not dead and that nice guys don’t necessarily finish last. Even in defeat, he came across as a winner.
This is not to say Spieth was not disappointed in his second-place finish. He was. He’s a fierce competitor with laser focus on the course—and that’s certainly a big part of why we like him. Clearly, if he were the 100th ranked golfer in the world, we wouldn’t be paying attention. We like the fact Spieth wants to win in the worst way. We would have loved to have seen him become the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three major tournaments in a calendar year.
But sometimes an athlete brings his A-game, gives it his best shot and still loses. On Sunday, Spieth threw everything he could at Day, kept the pressure on him for 18 holes, and it wasn’t enough. This was Day’s day. The Aussie, who had squandered third-round leads at the U.S. and British Opens, finally won a major.
After the two men double-checked their cards in the scoring trailer following the final round, Spieth leaned over and told Day: “There was nothing I could do. You played great. You didn’t give an inch.” Day was genuinely touched by Spieth’s magnanimous gesture, which conjured memories of the times when the great Jack Nicklaus hugged Tom Watson and Lee Trevino after they had out-dueled the Golden Bear.
“It’s a good feeling when someone like Jordan, who is playing phenomenal golf right now, says that,” Day told reporters.
In his post-tournament news conference, Spieth continued to heap praise on his opponent and also reveled in his own achievements, but not in a braggadocio way. By shooting a final-round 68, the new face of golf established a record by playing the four majors in 54-under par, breaking by one the record Woods set in 2000. The finish also enabled Spieth to supplant Rory McIlroy as the world’s top-ranked golfer.
“This is as easy a loss as I’ve ever had because I felt that I not only couldn’t do much about it as the round went on, I also accomplished one of my lifelong goals in the sport of golf,’’ Spieth said. “That will never be taken away from me now. I’ll always be able to say I was the No. 1 player in the world.”
That he was able to praise the man who had beaten him while savoring his own lofty accomplishments in a humble, dignified way was refreshing. I can’t tell you how many times in the four decades I’ve covered sports when perspective and gratitude have been sorely lacking. It drives me nuts when an athlete or coach achieves a milestone and either acts as if they are the greatest thing since the invention of the Internet—or as if they just underwent a colonoscopy. Too many times, instead of appreciating the moment, they tell us that they haven’t given it much thought; that they’ll reflect on it after they’re retired. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that response, I’d be Warren Buffett.
Spieth has shown an ability to strike golf balls, and just the right chord. He has become part of a new generation of golfers who have reinvigorated the sport. In recent years, fans have bemoaned the demise of Tiger Woods, whose misery continued last weekend when he failed again to make the cut at a major. But Woods no longer is the golf story, and that’s a good thing. Yes, golf is more interesting when Tiger is in contention. He still moves the television ratings needle in a way few athletes can.
But time marches on. New heroes need to emerge to capture people’s interest or a sport will die. Spieth just turned 22. McIlroy is 26 and Day is 27. They and other twentysomethings give hope that a new golden era is unfolding before our eyes. The potential for compelling new rivalries is enormous.
I don’t profess to know Spieth. I’ve only been able to observe him from afar. But everything I’ve heard and read and seen indicates he’s a fine young man with his head on straight. Hopefully, he’ll remain grounded and won’t become intoxicated with wealth and fame. He’s human, not a god, so there’s a good chance he’ll make some mistakes along the way that will result in him becoming more guarded and offer less of himself to the world. Hopefully, he’ll continue to model good sportsmanship, because heaven knows, we sure could use more of that on our fields of play and throughout our society.
Vince Lombardi once said: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” But the legendary Green Bay Packers coach never met Jordan Spieth. The golf phenom showed us once again that sometimes you can be a champion even in defeat.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak is in his 43rd year of journalism. You can talk sports with him weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on ESPN Rochester at 95.7 FM, AM 950 or on-line at www.espnrochester.com.
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