AUGUSTA, GA. – A word of advice for American golf fans who lamented a rare weekend at the Masters without Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson:
No need to fret. You’re going to love the new kid.
His name is Jordan Spieth, and at 20 years old, he will be the youngest ever to play in the final pairing at the Masters. After shooting a 70 in the third round on Saturday to tie Bubba Watson for the lead at 5 under par, the Texan could become the youngest Masters champion ever, because he is seven months younger than Tiger was when he won in 1997.
No one Spieth’s age has won a major in 92 years, and he’s trying to become the first player to win in his Masters debut since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
If Spieth is the future of American golf, watching Woods rehabilitate and Mickelson wrestle Father Time might not be so painful.
Spieth is a polite, amiable kid who would be a junior at the University of Texas if he hadn’t turned pro.
He’s at once a stunning young talent and a recent underdog, given that eight months ago he didn’t have status on any tour and had to play his way onto the PGA Tour, setting up a stunning run of play that landed him on the U.S. Presidents Cup team last fall.
He’s respectful of his elders and the game’s tradition, having leaned this week on the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw and Crenshaw’s Augusta-born caddie, Carl Jackson, for knowledge about Augusta National. He even said he’d call Bubba Watson, his playing partner on Sunday, “Mister, even if just to mess with him.”
And in the insular, privileged world of pro golf, he recognizes that there are things in life more important than even a 4-foot putt at the Masters. His sister, Ellie, was born with a neurological disorder. Jordan visited her regularly in the hospital when she was young, and the sight of so many ailing children made him appreciate the life of a golfer. “He saw firsthand how some of those kids never got to go home,” his father, Shawn, told Sports Illustrated.
A victory is hardly guaranteed — eight of the past nine major winners trailed entering the final round, and the 54-hole leader hasn’t won at the Masters in five years. Spieth and Watson sit atop a leaderboard packed tightly as a bunch of azaleas, with 23 players within seven shots of the lead, and nine players within three shots.
Win or lose, Spieth has arrived as a major threat, and the world of golf should rejoice. “It’s amazing what young Jordan Spieth is doing here,” said Matt Kuchar, who is tied for third. “I think you hear most of the commentary, that experience really has a lot to do with playing well here, and you see the likes of Fred Couples do well, and you do chalk it up to experience. It’s even more amazing to see what a guy like Jordan is doing in his first tournament.”
Spieth had planned a Monday practice round with Crenshaw and Tom Watson, but rain wiped it out, so he and his caddie, Michael Greller, consulted Jackson, Crenshaw’s Augusta confidante. “It’s funny, I told Michael I was going to buy a T-shirt for him that says, ‘Carl Says,’ because he keeps saying that to me out there,” Spieth said. “We’ll have to get that made.”
With one more age-defying round, Spieth might need to color-coordinate that T-shirt with a green jacket.
“I’m 20, and this is the Masters, and this is a tournament I’ve always dreamt about,” he said. “Like Mr. Crenshaw has always said, it brings out more emotion than ever in somebody. You draw on memories of guys that have made the putts on the last hole, from Tiger, to Phil, to last year with Adam [Scott] on 18. You just dream of what it would mean and how cool it would be.”
Be thankful, American golf fans. On a weekend without Tiger and Phil, you have a young player worthy of your affections.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • email@example.com