AUSTIN — On the short, par-3 17th at Austin Country Club, Jordan Spieth, 2 up, put the lethal squeeze on Charl Schwartzel, sticking his tee shot five feet from the hole. Schwartzel needed to respond with a birdie to extend the match, and even that might not have been enough. He didn’t get that birdie (his putt from the fringe sailed past), and standing above the hole, near the 18th tee, we all waited for the inevitable concession.
It didn’t come. Schwartzel apparently thought a three-putt from five feet was a possibility, or maybe he simply never concedes when the match is on the line. Spieth missed his birdie putt, and left himself two feet for the win … and again, Schwartzel didn’t concede. Spieth finished him off the hard way, tapping in to move to 1-0 in their Group 4 play on Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Schwartzel’s move was borderline rude by the unwritten rules of the format, but it wasn’t an enormous insult, especially with the match on the line. “Weird” is probably the best description, and in the small media scrum afterward, that word was bandied about. Michael Greller, Spieth’s caddie, agreed, but Spieth’s reaction was the most telling. Before the Golf Channel’s cameras started rolling, Steve Sands asked him about the non-concede, and Spieth looked genuinely surprised to remember the miniature drama, as though it had happened hours earlier, instead of just five minutes ago.
“Not the way I was putting earlier,” he said. “I would have made myself putt too.”
Then the cameras rolled, and the bland questions and answers ensued: Yes, it’s great to be back in Austin where I went to school. Yes, it’s nice to see kids along the fairway, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam.
But his initial reaction was instructive, because Spieth seemed sincerely unbothered by an incident that, albeit very minor, likely would have left some golfers a bit miffed. The contrast showed the famous Spieth even keel in action. When he was asked about the incident specifically by another journalist, he minimized it down to nothing and made sure to say that he wouldn’t hold it against Charl. And it was impossible not to believe him.
In the absence of Tiger Woods, the dominant storyline in this week is the Spieth-Reed clash coming on Friday. This is not a case of over-hyping a moment. Having them drawn in the same group at the selection show was staggering in the best way possible, a rare case of golf producing the one-on-one match-up everyone craves.
And there’s almost no chance the payoff will be anything other than fantastic. The Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup duo are used to playing on the same team, and their yin and yang/light side-dark side dynamic will be put to the test when they find themselves on opposite sides. I asked Spieth, a little tongue-in-cheek, whether it felt like they were on a collision course with destiny. He had all the right answers, because he’s Jordan Spieth—he wasn’t overlooking Haotong Li on Thursday, anything can happen, and it’s important not to look ahead.
But with his win over Schwartzel, and Reed’s victory against Li, it at least ensures that neither player will be eliminated come Friday. The match would have been great regardless, but it will be even greater now that they’re playing for something. (It will be greatest, of course, if they both win Thursday and are playing in a winner-takes-the-group scenario on Friday.)
And along with their history, the difference in personalities is what makes this so compelling. If Schwartzel had pulled that move on Reed, he’d still be seething, victory or no victory. It’s the kind of thing he’d never forget, whereas Spieth may not remember it tonight at dinner. But there’s strength in Spieth’s calm, too—perhaps more strength than the emotional typhoon that characterizes Reed’s match-play career. Watching them play each other will almost be like watching a fundamental clash of the elements.
One pairing behind Spieth, Reed was already in classic form on Wednesday. He’s known at this point for his aggression, his ferocity and even his shushing antics, but Reed is also an intelligent match-play golfer. On the “reachable” par-4 13th, already 2 up, Reed put Li in an impossible position by laying up into a perfect position on the fairway. Li evidently found the prospect of copying him insufficient, and as the wind blew, he took out driver. His shot found the water, and when he took a risky line from the drop area—he had no choice—that found the water, too. Reed and his caddie, Kessler Karain, stared back at Li, who had a brief discussion with his own caddie before making the “safe” signal to Reed. It was vague enough that Reed told Karain not to pick up the ball, that they’d wait. But it was a concession, and with just five holes to play, Reed had all but secured the match.
Moments earlier, on the same hole, Spieth narrowly avoided the water on his own lay-up, and then hit his wedge to within a foot. Like Reed, he didn’t have to complete the hole, and watching them edge closer to victory in quick succession provoked in me the sense that we were watching a prelude—the suspense-building scenes that come before the climax. It seems possible, just barely, that when the weekend comes to an end, we’ll all be talking more about Friday’s showdown then about the eventual winner of the tournament. Yes, it may be a dud, and the weekend drama may put this theory to shame, but it’s hard not to feel like something iconic is coming in 48 hours.