JORDAN SPIETH’S MASTERS VICTORY IS A REMINDER THAT THERE’S MORE TO GOLF THAN THE LONG BALL
Jordan Spieth’s Masters victory is a reminder that there’s more to golf than the long ball.
the splash jordan spieth made at the Masters continues to produce ripples. But so far overlooked is how the 21-year- old wizard brought attention back to the short game and putting as the most reliable difference makers in winning tournaments.
Actually, the subject has been creeping back to our attention lately. Tiger Woods’ chipping tribulations made it clear how crucial those skills had been to his greatness. The greenside virtuosity that Spieth and Patrick Reed displayed down the stretch of the Valspar Championship was electrifying. Then there is the fact that too many of the game’s biggest and most ballyhooed hitters are clearly held back by weak short games – notably Dustin Johnson.
But Spieth had the skill, the stage and the timing to change the narrative. All four of his rounds featured the kind of finesse shots that gave him more game than his competition. And on his 54th hole, after a double bogey, Spieth pulled off a do-or-die flop from a downhill lie to a short pin that for sheer degree of difficulty goes down as one of the greatest short-game shots in Masters history. It was the signature moment of the event, and maybe a beacon to the future.
If so, the change is overdue. For too long, pro golf has been all about length off the tee. No doubt it matters hugely, but it’s not everything and never will be, even if the major-winning driver prowess of Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson is more arresting than shortgame genius Luke Donald’s 56 weeks at World No 1. But lately, stories about golf ’s best are focused on their swing speeds, Body Mass Indexes and weightlifting regimens. The wedge and putter? Boring. Drive for show and putt for dough? Huh?
Columbia professor Mark Broadie’s breakthrough “strokes gained” statistical analysis on the PGA Tour seemingly sealed the deal. Of his four measured components of a tour player’s game – driving, approach play, short shots and putting – Broadie declared that short shots and putting are the two least important as far as creating separation from peers.
I don’t dispute Broadie’s accuracy in regard to the PGA Tour as a whole. But when it comes to actually winning tournaments, anecdotal evidence and the eye test tell me that chipping and putting have been and remain vital. On Sundays, the winning moment is often a crucial up-and-down or a key putt.
This is especially true at majors, where more greens are missed, and where the surfaces are firmer and faster and the hole positions more challenging. The man who won 13 of the 31 majors he played, Bobby Jones, was on to something when he said, “The secret of golf is turning three shots into two.”
Of course there’s a long tradition, led by Ben Hogan, of superior ball-strikers whose short shots were not of the same standard, yet who won multiple majors. Vijay Singh is in this select club, and though it’s early, McIlroy might earn a membership as well.
But there is a much grander tradition of great putters and wedge players (who possessed varying degrees of ball-striking proficiency) winning most often. In modern times, Gary Player (short hitting), Tom Watson (crooked hitting), Nick Faldo (short), Seve Ballesteros (crooked) and Phil Mickelson (crooked) all won at least five majors.
As for Woods, who in his best years was at least very good at every part of the game, it’s worth noting that instructor John Anselmo observed that when he was teaching Tiger as a teenager in Southern California, “what he liked to do best was chip and putt and try to learn shots around the green.” It might have been taken for granted when Woods was winning majors at a record clip, but a declining short game that has been responsible for all the “soft” bogeys he never used to make (quite apart from his recent crisis) makes it clear how crucial it was to keeping all those epic rounds knit together with par saves. As Lee Trevino says, “What made Tiger so tough was that he kept his birdies.”
To win with any regularity, even great ball-strikers need to be good with the wedge or putter or both, says one of history’s short-game artists, Raymond Floyd. “It’s very rare to hit the ball well for four straight days,” he says. “To win, your bad ball-striking round can’t be 74 or 75. You need a short game so that it’s not worse than par. And that’s never going to change.”
Well, what about Jack Nicklaus, who never disputed that he was mediocre with wedges? When he was playing, Nicklaus’ glib defence was that he didn’t need a short game. But in 2010 he admitted to Golf Digest that was based on bravado more than reason.
“My philosophy became, ‘I’m going to hit 14 or 15 greens, I’m going to hit at least a couple of par 5s in two, and I’m going to make every putt inside 10 feet,’ ” he said. Which Floyd confirms. “Jack seems like an exception, but you cannot discount that he was probably the greatest putter in the world. It usually covered for his short game.”
Yet even at his best, because it’s golf, Nicklaus lost a lot more tournaments than he won, and he now concedes with a tinge of regret what a significant difference having a quality short game would have made in his tournament and major-championship tally. “It was foolish for me to believe that it was good enough,” he says.
In his self-assessment, McIlroy borders on early Nicklaus. Though McIlroy admits that putting and chipping are not up to his long game, he has decided that trying to dramatically strengthen
‘IT’S VERY RARE TO HIT THE BALL WELL FOR FOUR STRAIGHT DAYS. TO WIN, YOUR BAD BALL-STRIKING ROUND CAN’T BE 74 OR 75. YOU NEED A SHORT GAME SO THAT IT’S NOT WORSE THAN PAR. AND THAT’S NEVER GOING TO CHANGE.’
– RAYMOND FLOYD
his weaknesses could end up costing him his strength. For now, his mantra is “When I drive it well, I win.”
The roots of such an attitude can be found in the sport’s current collective determination to be seen as, above all, athletic. This is where Spieth comes in. He’s clearly an athlete, from a family of team-sports standouts, and he was outstanding at youth basketball and baseball. Though he has jock bona fides and looks the part, he’s not really a power player. He innately knows that finesse, hand-eye coordination, visualisation, intelligence and nerve are tools every bit as athletic as speed and strength.
There is no denying that Spieth doesn’t have the fastest swing speed or the longest carry distance. But when he’s over a big putt, he’s unmistakably an athlete, projecting the kind of commanding body language that his namesake, Michael Jordan, had when taking the last shot. Spieth simply looks like he’s going to pull it off, and often does. There isn’t anything more athletic than being clutch.
Nor should the short shots be considered the geeky side of golf, suited for the diminutive Paul Runyans and all the succeeding pencil necks. Ultimately, the short game is about the most valuable commodity in sports – talent – and reflects the improvisational and artistic dimensions of athleticism that connoisseurs love most. It’s not a mystery why Ballesteros was the favourite player to watch among so many of his peers.
“I don’t think you can call yourself a great athlete without touch and feel,” Floyd says. “All great sportsmen have to have it. It’s a crucial part of any sport, and one of the best things about golf is that the best players have the most.”
Spieth is one of those, perhaps the biggest reason he has risen to No 2 in the world. Look for a lot more players to try to be more like Jordan.
Seve Ballesteros’ short-game magic was evident at the 1980 Masters.
Jordan Spieth and caddie Michael Greller had the answers at