Sunday morning, with the entire field tearing up St. Andrews on a damp, calm day, Jordan Spieth's hopes of continuing his Grand Slam charge with a British Open win looked roughly like the Scottish sky—mostly dismal, with the odd ray of sunshine.
Stepping onto the first tee with an obscene amount of pressure on his shoulders, he needed a special round just to fight back to contention and keep a faint hope alive. And a few hours later, that's exactly what he accomplished, posting a 66 that brought him to 11-under.
Ahead of him, the leaders failed to capitalize on the favorable conditions—of the final eight players, only Jason Day broke 70, while players other like Danny Willett and Dustin Johnson played mediocre rounds—and Sunday ended, unbelievably, with Spieth in fourth place, just one shot off the lead.
Which leaves us with that nagging mystery: How does he keep doing this?
For context, the only time Tiger Woods won the first two majors in the same year was in 2002. At the British Open in Muirfield, he found himself two shots off the lead heading into the third round. In an even better position than Spieth, he shot 81 and faded far down the leaderboard, bringing his own Grand Slam hopes to an end.
And that's as close as anybody had come to winning the third leg of the Grand Slam since 1972, when Jack Nicklaus finished second at the British Open. (Arnold Palmer did the same in 1960, and Ben Hogan failed to play the PGA Championship in '53, when it was held before the British Open—in the modern era, no other player has won the first two majors of the year.)
For further context, Woods was 26 when he had his chance, Nicklaus was 32, and Palmer was 30. They all had vastly more experience than Spieth, who is 21.
So we ask it again: How is he keeping pace with these historical giants?
Judging by his post-round demeanor, and everything we've learned about him for the past two years, the best answer is that he has an unnatural ability to not just ignore negative circumstances, but transform them into something totally different. Take this quote, on pressure:
"I don't look at it as a negative thing, I look at it almost as an advantage. Why should it add more pressure in a negative way? If it adds more pressure, it just makes me feel like this is something that's a little more special...when you say added pressure, most people associate that with negativity or something that can hinder what's comfortable. For me, I think it could be advantageous. You hit the ball a little bit further, you can really get your mind around a more specific target and block out other things."
Normally, we'd associate this straightforward type of thought pattern with someone who can't appreciate the gravity of the moment. But Spieth is no dope—in that quote alone, you can see how he understands why certain people fail under pressure, or see it as a negative stressor that they have to overcome. He knows this, and he understands the pitfalls, yet at age 21, he's able to re-frame these potential negatives as something beneficial.
It's an unbelievable bit of psychological alchemy. How do you do that? How do you take every obstacle that comes your way and view it not as a detriment, but as another weapon in your arsenal?
He's the opposite of a black hole—everything he encounters is subsumed in his expanding field of light. He's the architect of his own halo. If you're any other golfer, how the hell do you beat a guy like that?
I propose that we retire the word "maturity" in relation to Spieth, and replace it with "brilliant." Sure, he speaks like a respectful 45-year-old, but that's not the really special part. It looks special, because athletes tend to set a low bar in terms of stringing together thoughtful sentences, but Spieth isn't the only young guy who can hit his talking points. The word "maturity" describes the bland parts of his image, but the word "brilliant" describes the divergent parts.
This isn't somebody who is merely old ahead of his time, and the reason I know that is because there are no 36-year-olds doing what he's doing. Going a step further, the other young players of the moment will not become like him in a decade or two when they "grow up." He stands alone, and he will continue to stand alone.
Jordan Spieth's greatest public relations skill is that he comes off like a very normal guy. Don't let him fool you—he's nothing like normal.
Name another person that combines his level of obsession and work ethic with the mental acuity that lets him view the world in optimistic color even while recognizing the darkness. Name another person who dealt with very public failure in the biggest tournaments, as Spieth did in 2014, and solved the riddle of success in less than a year. His facility in front of a microphone is incredibly useful for the way it protects him from the sting of the media, but it is not instructional—it's something to look beyond.
Earlier today, I read a quote by Eddie Pepperell that almost perfectly defines the strange balance a golfer must strike:
"You almost need to be like two people in order to become successful," he told the BBC, and it's a profound thought, because it's not enough to be like Dustin Johnson and seem immune to pressure. Nerves will permeate even the thickest skull, and you need an intelligent strategy to cope. On the other hand, too much thought can be equally debilitating, and that gets to the conundrum—activate your head when you need it, turn it off when you don't. As Matt Every once told me, "you have to lie to yourself and believe it."
Spieth balances those elements, which we can call earth and sky, or instinct and brains, better than anybody else. Long after his round had ended on Sunday, the cameras caught him playing a game with his caddie Michael Greller, throwing a ball off into the distance and laughing when it hit its target. At that moment, I remembered something he'd said to Tom Rinaldi moments after he finished the 18th hole:
"I am going to sleep fine tonight."
I believe it. More importantly, he does too. And on Monday, one shot behind an amateur, a star-crossed Aussie, and a former St. Andrews champion, he's going to blow them all away.