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Jordan Spieth: Master Mind

A 21-year old golfer from Texas walked into history on Sunday as Jordan Spieth captured the 79th Masters.

Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

One of my best friend's son, named Jordan, was an honors student at UT. He spent one semester as a tutor for the golf team. During a study hall he walked over to where freshman phenom Jordan Spieth was working at a computer. Spieth was doing a little math homework - studying the PGA Top 125 Money List.

Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion at the tender age of 21 has always exhibited a propensity for preparation. His position on the money list already secured, Jordan is now preparing to take his place among the historically elite players in the sport.

"Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course - the distance between your ears." -- Bobby Jones

There is much to love about the game of golf. It is a lifetime sport that - unlike many other games played with a ball - allows people of disparate abilities to enjoy playing and competing against each other, thanks to the handicap system and to the fact that you are really playing against the course.

The game a passion of mine, and has been for over 40 years, with one driving truth.

I currently carry a 7 handicap, which statistically means I rank among the top 2 or 3 percent of players. And the gap between the game I play and the game on the professional level is as cavernous as the gap between myself and beginning golfers.

Golf is not a game of perfect. It is a game of endless challenges, and endless learning experiences.

Jordan Spieth is a young, gifted golfer who has  shown an "old soul" when it comes to understanding that having the mental discipline to accept the vagaries of a round is as important as having the swing to deal with them.

In my lifetime there have been two players - Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods --who were forces of nature that dominated their contemporaries and the game. Tom Weiskopf summed it up thusly: "When Jack plays his best, and you play your best, Jack wins every time. He knows it, we know it, and he knows that we know it."

That's not Jordan. Rather, he summons up images of Ben Hogan - with the personality and humility of Ben Crenshaw.

Jordan contended in the Byron Nelson at the tender age of 16. He is the only player, aside from Tiger Woods, to win multiple Junior U.S. Amateur Championships. He led Texas to the National Championship as a freshman, winning three tournaments. He has won four tour events and over $12 million.

Jordan's swing is smooth, no wasted motion. It is a swing that can stand the test of time, physically and mentally. It won't put undue pressure on knees and back, and is a reliable, repeatable swing under pressure. Like Hogan he approaches the game with a mind that efficiently evaluates the risk-reward aspects of every shot and acts accordingly. Spieth is a player who should be contending in Majors for decades.

A casual glance at the Spieth's stats on the PGA tour gives little or no indication as someone who is about to become one of the dominant players on the tour.

Driving distance? Jordan ranks 55th, averaging 293 yards. Driving accuracy? Spieth is hitting 61% of the fairways, just 100 on the tour. Greens in regulation? He is 103rd at 65%.  Dig a little deeper in the new analytics of golf and you find reasons for Spieth's recent success.

Strokes gained.

There are three new categories that measure a player's performance vs. the field average in tournament play. Spieth ranks 4th in strokes gained tee-to-green and 5th in strokes gained putting, which puts him 2nd on the tour in strokes gained per round against the field. Smooth, efficient, keeping focus on "small" targets that would allow for "small" misses.

"I don't want decision-making to ever cost me in an event like this." -- Jordan Spieth

30-year old Dustin Johnson can outdrive Jordan Spieth by 30 yards on a regular basis.  At 6-4 and 190 he can overpower just about any course on tour. Johnson set a Masters record on Friday by recording three eagle 3's while playing the four par 5's in seven under par.

And yet he finished the day with a 5-under 67.

A free swinging player who takes chances, Johnson was on the first page of the leaderboard on Saturday and turned in a back nine 39 that included 4 pars, 2 birdies, 2 bogies and a double.

Spieth meanwhile showed maturity beyond his 21 years while dealing with adversity. His laser-like intensity under tournament conditions is one of his best qualities, and was especially evident Saturday on #18.

As a hacker I can assure you that while double bogey - par adds up to the same score as par - double bogey, the damages done to a golfer's psyche are much worse with the latter.

Jordan's double bogey at 17 on Saturday was the result of not committing to his chip on his third shot. Hesitation kills in golf. Jordan paid the price with a double-bogey and when he "short-sided" his approach shot on 18 he was facing the kind of chip, downhill to a close pin, that no golfer at any level wants to have.

First task is to have the mental disposition of a relief pitcher, where there is no memory of a blown save.  Then show the confidence and imagination to pull off a flop shot and walk away with the most important par of his career.

How in the hell does a 21-year old seem so unfazed by the moment?

By learning from his past mistakes. Spieth had the lead on Sunday last year and watched it slip away to Bubba Watson. He filed the details of that failure in his memory bank for future use.

""What I learned was that the weekend of a major, those rounds can often seem like two rounds in kind of the mental stuff that's running through your head — the stress levels, and sometimes they are higher. The hardest thing to do is put aside wanting to win so bad, and just kind of going through the motion and letting my ball striking and putting happen." -- Jordan Spieth

Sunday those lessons learned were on full display. Spieth was paired with his closest rival, Justin Rose, and the two traded shots for the first 9 until Rose bogied  the hole to give Spieth a 5 shot lead heading into the back 9. Phil Mickelson made a little noise right in front of Jordan, but Spieth refused to repeat the mistake of 2014 and displayed the cold-blooded form of an assassin with his putter, cutting out the hearts of potential adversaries by dropping 10-15 foot putts center cut as if they were tap-ins.

"He plays the golf course like someone with far more experience, like he's been here for years and years, and that helps. It's not how many times you've played it, it's how well you understand it." - Ben Crenshaw on Jordan Saturday night

Here the basic facts of today's Masters. Jordan Spieth is the second youngest winner of the event, just a couple of months older than Tiger Woods. He is the first player to lead the Masters wire-to-wire since Raymond Floyd 39 years ago. He is the first player to reach -19 under par at any point in the tournament. He set a new record for birdies in the tournament with 28.

Then there are the rare times when sports can deliver a moment of grace and symmetry that offers real satisfaction.

After 44 appearances, Longhorn Legend and two-time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw played his final official round in the tournament on Friday. I have had the privilege to know Ben since we were teenagers on the practice tee at the Austin Country Club - although to be fair I was at the far, far end for the 13-year olds who were trying to break 100, while Ben and Tom Kite were busy at the other end working on breaking 70.

His love and respect for golf and its history are legendary, and you can see the same respect for the game and its fans in Jordan Spieth.

Ben didn't make the cut, but he stayed at Augusta to follow Jordan and give him emotional support. As noted before, Jordan finished 2nd in the Masters in 2014. The last player to finish 2nd at Augusta and win the next year was Ben Crenshaw.

Jordan & Ben

Masters Champions

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