By Rory Hughes, adapted from the May 2016 issue of Golf Chicago Magazine
“Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” — Angela Carter
If you laughed at Jordan Spieth soiling his Under Armour underwear on #12 at Augusta, you do not have a sense of humor; you are a sadist. If you’re a golfer with a soul, the only emotion you felt was pure, unadulterated sadness.
A profound lesson about golf and life, that the sages have preached for centuries, was behind the noise of whether this was a Norman-esque choke or if he can “ever come back from this” (The Onion ran a piece entitled “Jordan Spieth’s Family To Wait A Few Days Before Asking Him What The — — Happened”). Despite Spieth’s old head — and I’m not referring to his hairline — which typically demonstrates a rare ability to be fully present on every shot, Augusta reminded us that no one is immune to being seduced by the future or tormented by the past.
Sometime just before Spieth hit the tee shot on 12, he was probably thinking something like, “I’m going to win the Masters again.” Maybe he chuckled at the absurdity of a green jacket ceremony in which he dressed himself. Within seconds, he probably put this out of his mind, but it was too late. One loose swing and a pensive glance, and his ball was bounding into Rae’s Creek like a frightened toad.
Jordan’s chest must have fluttered before he took his stance — much like that moment you realize parring 17 and 18 means you’ll win the pot for guy’s weekend. What inevitably follows? Bogey, bogey, expletives, loss, ridicule, picking up an obscene bar tab. Alternatively, when you shoot two-under on the front, then think, “37 on the back and I break par for the first time in my life.” Then a sloppy back nine where fairways shrink, your swing disappears, and somewhere around 13, you accept that, once again, your 71 will be an 82. See, you are really not that much different from Jordan Spieth.
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” i.e. “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” became part of our vernacular for a reason. Although this ability to “see” the future is what makes us the most intelligent species on earth, it’s also what makes us miserable. Notice that dogs and babies don’t seem to care much about the future. They’re also pretty damned happy.
And another aphorism: “Don’t cry over spilled milk” i.e. “What’s done is done.” A millisecond after making contact, Spieth probably thought “Oh no, I sprayed it; there goes my back-to-back Masters.” Remember, seconds prior he was actually watching himself win the Masters, probably even imagining how he’d react to Jim Nantz’s creepy stares. So consider the mental and emotional trauma endured in just a few seconds. Spieth became the laptop with the dreaded blue screen — wires crossed, motherboard scrambled, hard drive virtually destroyed. The subsequent chilidip back into the creek was just a formality, and by the time he’d tapped in for quad, Jordan’s brain was melted.
Though you’re not a world-class player like Spieth, consider how many times one poor shot has undone an otherwise stellar round. But the shot didn’t destroy your round; your brain’s reaction to said shot did. I remember a few years ago, I joined up with a guy in his 60s, and through 12 holes he must have been two or three under. “Sir you’re playing really well,” I said, innocuously. He thanked me sheepishly. Then … Flub. Chunk. Snap hook. Push slice. OB. The old codger had made the same mistake Jordan made on 12: with my help, he just plain got ahead of himself. Consider if Spieth had truly forgotten the first tee shot, collected himself and treated the hole as if he were playing it for the first time. He’d have posted a non-fatal double, and thus might be snuggling under two green jackets in his new Texas mansion as we speak.
What will never show up in the digital Sports Almanac is how quickly Spieth shook off the nightmare and clawed back into contention; but, of course, by then it was too late. And if you watched Spieth closely in the Butler Cabin in one of the most awkward post-round interviews ever, you saw that he literally almost collapsed when donning the jacket on Danny Willet. Spieth still could not believe what he had done.
So what can we learn from this? And how can we apply it to our own games, our own lives? Remember that the second you start to imagine beating a threshold like breaking par, you’re finished. Similarly, perseverating over a four putt will make you miserable. Remember that living in the future causes anxiety, living in the past causes regret. Neither brings a state of peace or happiness.
I want to personally thank Jordan Spieth for not only making it cool to have a receding hairline, but for reminding me that even the most mentally disciplined people have a moment of slippage. And what makes golf so beautiful and so horrible at the same time is that there is no coach to give you the hook. There is no clock to run out on you. There is no injury to feign. Lose focus on the present for a millisecond and you go from hero to zero faster than Nick Faldo can seize an opportunity to talk about himself. Such is golf. Such is life.