Even though he missed the cut at the Players in his first start since his final-round collapse at the Masters, I’m not worried about Jordan Spieth.
Why? Well, I remember sitting across from Phil Mickelson seven months after he’d thrown away the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in particularly heartbreaking fashion. If he had won, it would have given him three straight major victories, his first U.S. Open and made him, for the first time, No. 1 in the world.
I’d met Mickelson in La Quinta, Calif., at an In-N-Out (before he became an investor in Five Guys). He’d given me 10 minutes, so at the risk of lacking tact, I knew I had to get to the point. I asked something like, “How do you know you won’t lose confidence and not be as good?” And then as an example, I mentioned a player who had collapsed at a major and never won again.
Mickelson is pretty much always diplomatic, but he bristled. After repeating the player’s name with annoyed incredulity, he did a slow burn before answering very firmly, “I’m not him.” Two weeks later Mickelson won at Pebble Beach by five strokes, and two months after that he captured the Players for the only time in his career. It wasn’t until 2010 that he won another major, but he’s gotten two since Winged Foot.
Every player is different, and tournament golf is unpredictable. But a good rule of thumb is that the better the player, the less he will be affected by a devastating loss, and the more likely he will bounce back.
It’s also instructive to note that it’s nearly impossible to go through a Hall of Fame career without very painfully giving at least one major away. In 1946, Ben Hogan three-putted the 72nd hole at consecutive majors—the Masters and the U.S. Open—to finish a stroke out of first in both. At 34, Hogan was still without a major, but not for long. He won the next one he played in at the PGA and went on to win eight of the next 15 after that.
Sam Snead had a devastating loss in the 1939 U.S. Open at Spring Mill when he made an 8 on the final hole when a par 5 would have won the championship. He admitted the loss cost him confidence and, at 27, drastically slowed his career momentum. But Snead rebounded to win four majors in the 1940s and three more in the 1950s.
Arnold Palmer’s most celebrated loss in a major was the 1966 U.S. Open, but he suffered several nearly as bitter before that and always came back strong. After losing the 1959 Masters with a disaster on the 12th hole similar to Spieth’s, Palmer had his finest year in 1960, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open. After giving away the 1961 Masters with a double bogey on the last hole, he won his first British Open three months later. After losing the 1962 U.S. Open in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus before legions of home fans at Oakmont, he won the next major at Troon. (Nicklaus himself did much the same thing in 1963, winning the PGA after blowing a late lead at the British Open.)
Most recently, Rory McIlroy at 23 gave away the 2011 Masters with a final-round 80. At the U.S. Open at Congressional two months later, he won by eight shots.
I once asked Gary Player, who won the first of his nine majors at the 1959 British Open despite a double bogey on the 72nd hole, whether his career would have been seriously hampered if that final-hole collapse had cost him victory. After a pause in which he relived the desperation he had felt in the two hours before the other contenders finished, Player finally said softly, “No. I was too determined.”
Which gets us back to Spieth. He’s already proven he has the potential to be all-time great. He won two U.S. Junior Amateurs, joining Tiger Woods as the only players to win more than one. Along with winning his two majors in 2015 at age 21, Spieth has three other runner-ups and a T-4 (that was one stroke out of a playoff) in his last nine majors. That’s as good a start in Grand Slam events as any player in history.
Last week, Spieth was closely scrutinized as observers looked for signs of mental or technical weakness in his first tournament since the Masters. When, apparently well-positioned for a closing birdie on the par-5 ninth that would have given him an opening 69, he instead fluffed a pretty standard sand shot and ended with a double-bogey 7, it was easy to surmise it was due to scar tissue.
No doubt Spieth is still hurting. My guess is that in quiet moments he burns at failing to get his mind right for the tee shot on Augusta’s 12th hole, and then again for the fateful lob wedge from the drop area. Because getting his mind right in big moments is what most separated Spieth from his peers in 2015.
But Spieth is too smart about the challenges of the game, and too aware of the history of the greatest golfers, to not figure out what it will take to get back on track, and do so.
At the Players, Spieth looked well rested after four weeks off. He was, as always, candid and cooperative with the media. He admitted after missing the cut that he had pressed and been impatient in his play, all the more because playing partner Jason Day was setting a 36-hole scoring record and creating more distance between the World No. 1 and, now, World No. 3.
But Spieth also showed a hint of healthy defiance. “I don't think I have anything to prove,” he said. “I think I've already proven what we're capable of doing when the pressure is on.”
It was good to hear. Spieth will be back, and soon. He’s just too determined.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the May 16, 2016 issue of Golf World.