Despite the scenic backdrop of deep green pines and blushing azaleas, people could not help but divert their eyes from the golf course during last Sunday’s final round at the Masters golf tournament. As Jordan Spieth staggered up the final hill of the 18th green, visibly crippled by enough embarrassment to last him a lifetime, he suddenly dropped to a knee and covered his face. Even he could not bear to look anymore.
For an entire afternoon it was impossible to view Spieth as one of golf’s biggest stars, especially during the tournament’s closing ceremonies and interviews when Spieth struggled to fight back tears. It may be hard for us — and Spieth — to realize now, but by losing this year’s Masters in such brutal fashion, Spieth has become even more like golf’s greatest players than if he had taken home the green jacket.
Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead are considered three of the greatest golfers to ever grace the earth, yet all three finished second in more majors than they won. Decades later, all we hear about when it comes to these greats are their records: Nicklaus and his 18 majors, Palmer and his four green jackets, Snead and his 81 PGA Tour titles. But behind these staggering accomplishments are some of golf’s most calamitous collapses in major tournament history — the likes of which make Spieth’s twice-bathed quadruple bogey last Sunday seem like merely an unfortunate mishap.
In 1971, Nicklaus three-putted on four holes during his final round at the Masters, costing him what would have been a seventh green jacket. Snead once blew a two-stroke lead in a playoff before missing a two-foot putt to cost himself a U.S. Open title. Palmer needed only a par on the 18th hole to win the 1961 Masters. He teed off into a bunker, nailed a TV broadcasting tent on his subsequent shot and then three-putted his way to the kind of double bogey you are only supposed to see on public courses.
Luckily, time eventually heals all wounds in the sporting community. After dozens of wins and a couple of decades, these devastating collapses are now the last things you think of when these legends come to mind.
I’m not worried about whether or not golf fans will get over last weekend’s collapse at the Masters. Instead, a great deal of concern rests on whether the 22-year-old former champion can. Often in sports, getting over a loss isn’t nearly as tough as getting over how you lost. If Spieth had not previously held a 65-hole lead and ended up with a second place finish at the Masters on Sunday, come Monday the top-two finish would have been added Spieth’s resume under recent top finishes in a major.
But in sports, the process is just as important as the end result. Spieth ended up in second place because of a painfully brutal, nearly unwatchable collapse on Amen Corner. Now his second-place finish is so closely scrutinized, one cannot help but wonder if Spieth would have been better off not making the cut at all and watching Sunday’s round from the couch.
Golf’s greatest competitors would tell you otherwise.
If history reveals anything about the sport, it is that the game’s greatest players rebound quickly from cringe-worthy losses. Nicklaus bounced back from his own final round Masters’ debacle to win three of the next five majors he played in. Snead won five more majors after letting the U.S. Open get away from him in 1947. And after his disastrous 18th-hole collapse at the 1961 Masters, Palmer went on to win two of the following three green jackets.
What these next 12 months will tell us is whether Spieth is made of legendary mettle. Is he a young stud poised to dominate leaderboards for the next decade like the Tiger Woods 2.0 we saw him as? Or is Spieth merely a fad — a rookie who hit a hot streak for a year before fizzling out like a cheap firework? The verdict is still uncertain, but if Spieth is who we think he is, fans won’t have to wonder for long if the kid is truly one of the greats. Another major championship trophy is right around the corner.