Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2014

Lessons For Spieth In Kaymer’s Victory

A NOTE TO READERS: This post is late due to the weather-delayed finish of the PGA Tour’s Players Championship.

There are no sure things in sports. Fans of every game can name “can’t miss” players whose careers ended far short of their respective Halls of Fame. But in less than eighteen months as a professional 20-year old Jordan Spieth has displayed a potential that has most golf fans believing they will be watching him win tournaments for many years to come. Ranked 810th in the world when he left the University of Texas midway through his sophomore year, Spieth won the John Deere Classic last July for his first professional victory. He finished the 2013 season 10th on the money list. Since he turned pro the only player to match Spieth in the number of top-10 finishes is Tiger Woods. Last month in his first appearance at the Masters he led the tournament by two shots with eleven holes to play. Last week, now ranked 7th in the world, he arrived at TPC Sawgrass for his first try at the Players Championship.

So it’s no wonder that last Thursday’s post about resurgent opening rounds at the Players by three Europeans ended with “It’s only Thursday, of course. By late Sunday perhaps we’ll be talking about young Jordan Spieth, who was among the group at 67.” Sure enough, as the final round of the would-be fifth major played out at weekend’s end, the superstar in the making was a central actor in the closing drama. Unfortunately for the growing legion of Spieth fans his part was identical to the one he played four weeks ago at Augusta National.

As at the Masters Spieth began the final round tied for the lead. Then it was with Bubba Watson; on Sunday it was with Germany’s Martin Kaymer. The 29-year old Kaymer spent two days demonstrating that his opening round, a 63 that matched the course record, was no fluke. He followed the 9-under par masterpiece with a 69 on Friday and an even par 72 on Saturday to sit at 12-under through 54 holes. Spieth improved on his initial 67 with a 66 on Friday and a 1-under 71 in Saturday’s third round to match Kaymer’s total.

In the final round of the Masters Spieth made four birdies in the first seven holes to move two clear of Watson as they walked to the 8th tee. But Spieth played the final eleven holes in three over par, starting with a three-putt bogey at the 8th, where Watson made birdie. When his tee shot at the par-3 12th finished in Rae’s Creek, Spieth’s chances of becoming just the fourth first-time participant to don a green jacket drowned with his Titleist.

On Sunday in Ponte Vedra Spieth again claimed the lead early in the final round, this time with a birdie at the 4th hole. From the middle of the fairway he hit a perfect wedge, the ball landing right of the hole and rolling down the slope of the green to finish less than seven feet from the cup. When his birdie putt rolled in, it was the first time since Friday’s opening round that Kaymer had not held at least a share of the lead. One could not help but think of the difficulty of winning a tournament by leading throughout, and one could not help but be awed by Spieth’s talent and potential.

With the final twosome on the 5th tee, the NBC announcing crew marveled at the fact that Spieth had played the entire 58 holes of the tournament without a single bogey. Analyst Johnny Miller, who devotes most of his commentary to suggesting that every shot and especially every putt aren’t very difficult, for once earned his keep. He opined that if Spieth’s streak was going to end, it would likely do so either on that hole or soon thereafter on the 8th. Miller proved prescient when Spieth’s bogey-free run ended at the 5th, and doubly so when he made another bogey at the 8th.

Just like that and just like at the Masters, the enormously talented 20-year old went from leading on the front nine of the final round to two strokes adrift at the turn. Three more bogeys followed on the inward side before a too late birdie at the 16th, as Spieth played the final fourteen holes in four over par.  As bright as Jordan Spieth’s future appears to be, it’s also clear that he has to learn how to weather the intense pressure of playing with the lead on the PGA Tour.

If he was observant, Spieth likely learned a lot about that in his two weekend rounds with Kaymer. The soft-spoken German was touted as the next big thing on the European Tour when he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2007 at the age of 22. A year earlier Kaymer shot 59 in the second round of a developmental tour event in Germany. His maiden European Tour triumph early in 2008 moved him up to 34th in the world rankings. At the time Kaymer was the only golfer under the age of 25 in the top fifty. Starting with the 2009 PGA Championship he finished in the top ten at four out of five majors, capped by his playoff victory over Watson at the 2010 PGA. Early the following year he ascended to number one in the world.

But Kaymer’s stay at golf’s pinnacle was brief. Weighed down by the expectations of his fans and his own ill-advised determination to achieve perfection on the golf course, his game deteriorated. He arrived at the Players having fallen to sixty-first in the rankings and without a victory on either the European or PGA Tour in more than two and a half years. But he also arrived with a new commitment to think less and trust his natural ability. The result was the flawless 63 on Friday and a three shot lead on Sunday when lightning suspended play with the final twosome on the 14th green.

The ninety minute weather delay threatened to derail Kaymer, who promptly double bogeyed the 15th hole when play resumed. With the light fading and his lead down to one over Jim Furyk, he surveyed a seemingly impossible par putt on the 17th, thirty feet down a steep slope with six feet or more of left to right break. After the round Kaymer said that as his lead appeared about to disappear into the gloaming he remained positive; telling himself that even if he missed he could still win outright with a birdie at the last. It was a birdie he never needed, because his ball curled down the slope and into the heart of the cup; perhaps the greatest putt ever on the most familiar green in golf.

There are no sure things in our games, something that Martin Kaymer has learned the hard way and that Jordan Spieth may only be beginning to understand. But as Kaymer showed on Sunday, with Spieth watching and hopefully learning, with hard work, the right attitude, and yes, a little bit of luck, an athlete can make his own destiny.

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