As Bubba Watson sank his Masters-winning putt on Sunday, the most captivated spectator just might have been the 20-year-old who stood at the edge of the 18th green, hands on hips, taking it all in.
Jordan Spieth had a front-row seat all day long while Watson marched to his second triumph at Augusta National. From there, he saw exactly what it takes to win golf’s ultimate prize while coping with the inevitable ups and downs on a course where emotions undulate as much as the greens do.
And there was a sense that Spieth will process all of it quickly and be back soon to finish one spot better than his tie for second place in his Masters debut.
The rousing standing ovation Spieth received Sunday from the crowd packed around the 18th green seems like just a warmup for him.
Spieth is the prototype of what golf needs right now as it begins to earnestly contemplate life without Tiger Woods. He's a new and boyish face who appears ready to rev up the debate about who’s the game’s best young player.
He didn't wilt under the bright lights of playing in the final pair at a major, he's already won a PGA tour tournament and his passion is evident on every hole.
So no, Spieth didn’t win a bright green jacket to go with the pale green shirt he wore on Sunday, but his poise and determination were just one more reason the sport didn’t spend the weekend moping about Woods' absence.
Spieth came up just short of breaking Woods’ record as the youngest Masters winner, but still obviously has a long way to go before he can be called the next Tiger.
But by holding the lead for four holes on Sunday, he defined himself as one of the game’s roaring young lions, as befits someone who will turn 21 on July 27, under the sign of Leo. And he already has made an indelible mark as the PGA Tour's first teenage tournament winner since 1931, by claiming last year's John Deere Classic.
The best thing about Spieth’s words and body language was that he made it clear he has no interest in moral victories, consolation prizes or wearing the Mr. Congeniality crown.
In his interview immediately afterward with Bill Macatee on CBS, Spieth summed his feelings by saying: “I’m hungry, to be honest with you. That was fun, but at the same time it hurts right now.”
Aside from Matt Kuchar’s brief moment atop the leaderboard very early, Spieth was the only player to pressure Watson all day long. It might as well have been match play between the two, as none of the bigger names could mount a charge.
A couple of missed putts let the neck-and-neck competition transition into a coronation for Watson. But it seemed clear from the start that Spieth hadn’t spent Saturday night tossing and turning in his sleep, or being chased in his dreams by demons from Amen Corner.
He was a tad too left on his opening tee shot, but recovered immediately with his approach on No. 1. And his hole-out from a bunker for a birdie on No. 4 just might have been the finest shot of the day, considering the circumstances.
“I didn’t come out on top but I can take a lot of positives away,” Spieth told Macatee. “I think I’m ready to win a major, and that’s a great feeling.”
Spieth also wasn’t shy about showing those feelings out on the course.
When he hit into a bunker with his approach on No. 10 he slammed an iron into the turf. Not in wild anger, but with the look of a youngster who already understands that every single swing counts at a major.
Then he walked up the fairway and calmly made another great save out of the sand.
The only time he let impatience get the better of him was in the tee box on No. 13, when he was anxious to give chase after Watson launched a perfect, 360-yard drive.
Forced to wait a few moments while the winds swirled, Spieth muttered, “Can we not catch a gust?”
And on No. 16 he took a half-swing at the air in frustration and groaned aloud, after his last real chance to renew pressure on Watson slipped away with a missed birdie putt.
But other than that, Spieth looked like a seasoned and savvy veteran, which he’s surely destined to become. And golf is getting desperate for a new generation of them.
The sport has spent too much time the last few years wondering whether Tiger is healthy, whether Tiger can win his 15th major, whether Tiger can surpass Jack Nicklaus' record for majors.
Spieth will be in as much of the post-tournament conversation this year as Watson. Golf really needs that, because there's also no telling how long its No. 2 star, Phil Mickelson, will be playing marquee golf.
Unless golf starts enthusing about new names, it will get stuck in the past, and that's no good. Recycling tales about Woods' triumphs aren't going to grow a sport that's starting to lose participants rapidly.
As USA Today has pointed out in several articles, golf was particularly hard hit by the recession, and club memberships are in decline. One way to dig out of that ditch is with new and compelling stars, and Spieth looks like one.
In his first Masters, he left Augusta having played five strokes better than the Irishman who’s generally considered the best young player, Rory McIlroy. He also was three strokes better than Rickie Fowler, and it should be noted that McIlroy’s tie for eighth and Fowler’s tie for fifth were the best Masters finishes either of those 20-somethings have had.
At his age, and given that he’s only been a pro since December of 2012, no one would have been shocked to see Spieth spend the better part of Sunday hunting for lost balls in the woods.
Augusta National has brought more than its share of would-be champions to their knees on Sunday.
Greg Norman certainly learned that feeling when he gagged on a six-stroke lead in 1996. And McIlroy experienced it to the maximum when he took a four-stroke lead into 2011’s final round, only to implode with a closing 80.
Spieth didn’t let this one get away. It simply wasn’t his time. At least not quite yet.
“Oh, it was so much fun, even if I didn’t show it on the back nine. It really was,” Spieth told CBS. “Although it sits a little hard right now I’ll be back, and I can’t wait to be back.”
A whole lot of Spieth's new-found fans are feeling exactly the same way.
Tom Weir has covered two Masters as a columnist for USA Today.
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