The Need for Spieth: Why the Media Adores Golf’s Latest PhenomElias Stein
If you want to understand how a bunch of hard-boiled golf writers fell in love with a Nice Young Man — how the people who seek controversy learned to respect someone who sidesteps it at every turn — let us go to the interview area at last week’s Bridgestone Invitational. Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press had asked Jordan Spieth, the no. 2 ranked golfer in the world, how he spent his 22nd birthday …
“I was just at home,” Spieth said, standing atop a small stage. “I was in Dallas. We had probably 20, 25 friends over at the house, just hanging at the pool and having a couple beers. It was a good time.”
The answer was so innocent, so Spiethian. With any other golfer, those words would have been next to a black “redacted” rectangle in the official transcript.
“So there was more,” Ferguson said, kidding Spieth about his reply. “OK.”
A look of concern spread across Spieth’s face. The idea that some sexual or pharmacological event might have happened beside that pool … He stepped off the stage and walked toward the reporters.
“No,” Spieth said. “There really wasn’t. There was nothing that went on.” He nodded at Jay Danzi, his agent. “Jay just doesn’t like when I say ‘beer.’”
The reporters roared with laughter.
The speed with which Spieth has conquered golf (two major titles at age 21; one stroke short of the playoff that could have made it three) is only slightly more remarkable than the speed with which he has conquered the golf media. According to Golf Digest’s Dave Kindred, only one young golfer was loved so instantaneously and unanimously: Arnold Palmer. “Spieth is as close to Palmer as anybody,” Kindred said. “In my mind, he’s instantly likable.”
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Part of what makes Spieth, competing today in the opening round of the PGA Championship, likable is that he’s great. It’s more profitable to chronicle greatness than to chronicle Shaun Micheel. But there’s also a moral component of Spieth love — the notion that reporters have discovered that rarest of birds, the nice-guy superstar. “When Jordan Spieth won the Masters on Sunday, we won too,” USA Today’s Christine Brennan wrote in April. “People who have grown sick of self-absorbed athletes won. Parents and coaches preaching sportsmanship in youth sports won. … If Spieth’s victory becomes the eventual changing of the guard in American golf, it’s a big win for the good guys.”
At the Bridgestone in Akron, Ohio, I walked up and down sun-drenched fairways with Spieth, listening to the gallery marvel at how unremarkable his body is. “That little runt,” one guy said. “He’s going to be a superstar.”
Then I followed Spieth into interview areas. Media access to Spieth has been curtailed to the point where all but a few interactions are handled in group press conferences. But even reporters reduced to the cattle call claim it’s a good experience, thanks to Spieth’s likability. This is where the Nice Young Man goes to work.
You notice a few things right away about how Spieth ministers to the press. He smiles an awful lot. He makes eye contact with reporters. “You ask him a question and he answers it!” Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger wrote in an email. “He considers your question and gives a thoughtful, intelligent, original answer.”
An athlete explaining what just happened on the field usually gives a reporter the simpleton’s version. (“I was looking for a pitch to hit.”) Spieth is a natural wonk and drowns the press in detail. Golf writers like to talk about the time Spieth spent about 30 minutes feeding the press after his Masters victory in April, and then offered a frighteningly comprehensive hole-by-hole recap of the final round — not just birdies and bogeys, like most golfers. It was, as strange as this sounds, like he was trying to impress them.
“You ask him a question in a press conference or a one-on-one,” said Jaime Diaz, the editor of Golf World, “and it’s almost like you’re the teacher and he wants to get an A on the answer.”
Spieth’s answers hew to an internal code of courtesy. When he was talking about something good he did in Thursday’s opening round of the Bridgestone, he often adopted the collective first-person: “We did make a couple really good 6-to-7-footers on the last five holes … ” When he talked about something bad he did — a bogey, say, or a poor chip — Spieth always said “I.”
Spieth is a natural pleaser on the podium but not a yes man. He will gently push back against leading questions, especially those in which the reporter deposits the article’s thesis in his lap. No, he told a writer at the Masters, Augusta’s slick greens didn’t remind him of the greens of his Dallas youth. No, he said at the British Open, the “real” Open doesn’t start when the weather turns bad.
This pushback reached a comic apotheosis last year when Grantland contributor Shane Ryan snagged an interview with Spieth for his book Slaying the Tiger. Ryan tried to break the ice by saying he knew players hated playing in pro-ams. “Let me just say,” Spieth replied earnestly, “I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.”
Rory McIlroy — who, five minutes ago, was the world’s golf prodigy — can also command a press conference. McIlroy is more emotional and off-the-cuff; Spieth is more earnest and thoughtful. (The cameras love McIlroy; the notebooks love Spieth.) Golf writers have also watched McIlroy’s and Spieth’s styles converge. McIlroy, stung by negative stories and the pressure of being no. 1, has become more guarded; Spieth, newly confident with two majors, has gotten more expansive and eager to please.
“Rory McIlroy never speaks as if he were over at his girlfriend’s dad’s house for dinner,” said Luke Kerr-Dineen, who writes for USA Today’s For the Win site. “Jordan Spieth always speaks as if he were over at his girlfriend’s dad’s house for dinner. People like that — especially sportswriters who are constantly swatted to the side.”
Although Spieth is not very “meta,” golf reporters suspect he has an innate understanding of the kind of morsels the media wants. Nothing illustrates this quite like the heart-rending quest of Ben Everill. Everill is an Australian AP reporter whose Twitter bio says he dishes the “inside oil” on Aussie golf. Before the Masters, the home office wanted Everill to ask Spieth just how important his win at the 2014 Australian Open was in kick-starting his run. Everill asked; Spieth answered. Mission accomplished. Then Everill was required to ask the same question after the Masters, as Spieth was basking in the first major win. Spieth smiled and again paid homage to the Australian Open.
The Aussie appetite for quotes about the 2014 Australian Open knows no bounds. At the U.S. Open in June, Everill again had to ask Spieth the same question. And again at July’s British Open. Last week, in Akron, Everill apologized and repeated the question for at least the fifth time since April. Spieth answered — first gently pushing back on the premise (his Masters victory was a bigger kick-starter), before dishing enough inside oil that Everill was able to cut Spieth a break at this week’s PGA Championship.
Marveling at what a mensch Spieth could be, Everill told me, “Jordan just reminds me of an Australian.”
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“Mature” is the adjective most often pinned to Spieth. “Every time you read about him, you hear ‘21-year-old,’ ‘Texan,’ and ‘mature,’” said Alex Myers, an associate editor at Golf Digest. “It’s like those three things all have to line up to describe him.” When they’re talking about his play, golf writers use the word “mature” to describe Spieth’s composure. But in the interview room, what the writers mean is something more like “discreet.”
In the hours he has spent in press tents and walking near live mics on the course, Spieth has said a tiny number of things that would arouse even the most sensitive sportswriting soul. You often read that Spieth says “all the right things” to the media. This is a compliment against interest, because an athlete saying all the right things isn’t saying anything at all.
But the golf writers say they’re not as bothered by his rigid niceness as they would be with another golfer. That’s because they don’t think there’s much of a difference between the public and private Spieths. The nice guy who says all the right things is not a media dissembler but the genuine article.
It’s become a standby of the Spieth profile to describe his innocence. Spieth turned down the Kardashian family’s offer to meet Kendall Jenner because Spieth had no idea who she was. In his lepidopterist study of Spieth, ESPN’s Chris Jones reported that Spieth had never heard of the Price Is Right game “Plinko.” The all-timer Spieth quote — which was also a pushback to a writer’s leading question — was: “Me speaking about humility is very difficult because that wouldn’t be humility.”
The writers have theories about where Spieth acquired his maturity. The most popular is that he derived his patience by caring for his sister, Ellie, who has a neurological disorder. The golf writer John Feinstein goes one step further: It was volunteering at Ellie’s school — that is, with kids who weren’t his sister; kids he didn’t have to spend time with — that gave Spieth his forbearance.
What Spieth shows is that there are two kinds of athletes whom sportswriters love. There are athletes who say what’s on their mind. Then there are the athletes who hew to a code of gentility, carefully exchanging the game face for the humble smile as soon as they sit in front of a mic. Spieth is an extraordinary example of the latter. “All these guys are egotists,” Kindred said. “All of them are cruel in the sense that you don’t get to be great unless you’re cruel. Spieth hides it better than anybody. It’s still there. But it’s not expressed in four-letter words. It’s expressed in a way that endears himself to you.”
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To understand the media’s love affair with Spieth, you have to look at the golfer who didn’t even get an invite to the Bridgestone. Writers may call Spieth an “heir to Tiger Woods,” but they mean it only in the golfing sense. The media loathes Tiger, and hopes Spieth will restore press-tent relations to its chummier, pre-Tiger state.
“Golf writers through the years — and I go back even before my time — we’re spoiled,” said Feinstein. “You had Palmer, who was arguably the most cooperative athlete with the media ever. [Jack] Nicklaus learned from Palmer and evolved into somebody who was very good to deal with. [Tom] Watson ran hot and cold, but he could be very good.
“Then along came Tiger,” Feinstein continued, “who gave everybody the high hat.”
“Tiger was always insufferable,” said Curt Sampson, author of The Masters and other books. “The first time I met him was at the U.S. Amateur. … He closed the guy out. I introduced myself. I got the dead-fish handshake, and he looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Maybe later.’ He was 16 or something.”
While Spieth loves drowning the press in detail, Woods is a vicious self-censor. “I remember in 1998, when Tiger was going through his first swing change,” said Golf Digest’s Ron Sirak. “It was at the Bay Hill tournament, and we were in the interview room. I asked him what he was working on, and Tiger’s knee-jerk reaction was, ‘It’s too complicated.’ I said, ‘I’ve been around the game 30 years. Give it a shot.’”
Getting the high hat from Tiger was one thing. He was a generational star. But golf writers noticed a side effect: Young players were not only copying Woods’s swing but his manners. “Tiger was such a grim figure, so dominant, that I think to some extent he just gave permission to everybody to be kind of a dick,” said Jaime Diaz. “A lot of players were. They thought to be a good player you had to be.”
This is the press tent Spieth walked into. Kindred noted that Jack Nicklaus got an early stiff-arm in part because he was shoving Palmer, the reporters’ favorite son, off the winner’s podium. Spieth, on the other hand, was only shoving Woods further off the podium. The reporters felt like he was doing them a favor.
What began as a comparison of the way Spieth and Woods handle the press has broadened into a critique of their characters. Spieth, nearly every profile mentions, is still dating his high school sweetheart, Annie Verret. “Annie’s good for Jordan,” his mom told the New York Times. “He doesn’t need a celebrity girlfriend.” Whereas Woods is a famous divorcee and, to borrow Dan Jenkins’s priceless phrase, a silicone collector.
“Spieth doesn’t succumb to the uber-fist-pumping and extracurricular swearing of Tiger,” Christine Brennan noted in USA Today. “There was also Spieth’s new TV commercial. Tiger’s commercials were always about Tiger … Spieth’s? The one that was airing between his shots Sunday was the AT&T commercial about not texting while driving, the kind of commercial any mother loves.”
The bit about swearing on the course is true. On Friday, on the seventh tee in Akron, Spieth hit a drive he didn’t like, spun around and looked at the gallery, and plaintively said, “Dude!” For Spieth, “dude” is a curse word. (You wonder why journalists who drop F-bombs on deadline are granted a luxury over someone who’s trying to a win a million-dollar prize.)
It’s also a strange moral universe that says a Tiger fist pump is a sin against Ben Hogan, but dropping your club after a bad shot or lecturing your ball in midair (both Spieth faves) are lovable eccentricities. “The Tiger stuff bothers me because anything he does, especially now that he’s down, gets portrayed in a negative light,” said Alex Myers. “Anything that a Rory or a Jordan does on their way up — when they’re young, when everybody likes them — they’re being charming.”
This is the fallout of covering Woods for many journalists. You can boil down the Spieth-versus-Tiger difference to the individual words they use at press conferences. “Every Tiger response was dotted with the word ‘obviously,’” said Curt Sampson. “‘Obviously, I’m going to be playing hard. Obviously, the greens are fast.’ That was Tiger all over.”
Spieth reaches into his bag for “arguably.” The word works like a police spike strip to puncture any excitement Spieth might accidentally generate. After winning the Masters, he declared, “This was arguably the greatest day of my life.” After winning the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Spieth noted that his caddie, Michael Greller, had been married at the course years earlier: “[Greller] shares arguably one of the best moments of his life here.” It’s a Nice Young Man’s tic, even if Greller’s wife wouldn’t appreciate the caution.
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A final element of Spieth love goes to the very heart of the sport’s self-image. There are two kinds of golf: the kind that is sold on TV and the kind you hear inside the ropes. It’s the difference between CBS’s phony birdsong and Dead Solid Perfect’s Kenny Lee Puckett saying, “Fuckin’ gypsies are what we are. Except we use deodorant.”
The magic of Spieth is that he is a bridge between the real and fantasy worlds, a moral paragon who allows us to entertain the fantasy that golf is the sport of gentlemen. As Ryan noted in Slaying the Tiger, Spieth is to golf what Derek Jeter was to baseball. “Golf’s retrogressive element … fetishized the mythical upright citizen,” Ryan wrote. “They longed for the kid who could make their nostalgia tangible and grow into a gentleman superstar. You can imagine their delight when their dream came true. Jordan Spieth was the redeemer.”
The allure of such a character is so great that the Masters theme song seems to be tinkling in writers’ minds as they type their game stories. Last April, Spieth entered the final day at Augusta tied for the lead with Bubba Watson. He played the eighth and ninth holes badly and rolled a ball into Rae’s Creek, and lost by three strokes. Or, to read the stories the next day, maybe he didn’t:
Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN: “Spieth didn’t lose the Masters; Bubba Watson won it.”
Karen Crouse, New York Times: “Spieth did not lose the tournament Sunday; the more experienced Watson leaned on all his institutional knowledge to win it.”
Jim Rome: “Look, there have been some unbelievable players who gagged hard on Sunday at Augusta. Spieth isn’t one of them … He didn’t lose that jacket, Bubba ripped it from him.”
Tom Weir, Bleacher Report: “Spieth didn’t let this one get away. It simply wasn’t his time.”
Mike Purkey, Golf Today: “Spieth didn’t win but he didn’t lose.”
Spieth is a realist. He knows he lost the 2014 Masters. Last week, he was still stewing over it — in an endearing way, of course — at his Akron press conference.
But the fantasy that Spieth never fails in the clutch endures. After he lost the British Open in July, Luke Kerr-Dineen authored a post arguing that Spieth “choked.” The writer was blasted. If Spieth’s nerves of steel were saluted at Augusta and Chambers Bay, it didn’t seem unreasonable to knock them at St. Andrews. But as Kerr-Dineen explained later, “People weren’t ready to talk about anything other than what a great run it was.”
Spieth inspires more vivid fantasies, too. In April, a writer with Britain’s Independent attended the Masters and found that Spieth was redeeming the club’s scuzzy racial history:
There are so many reasons to rail against Augusta National, with its mono-racial audience, its elitism and the sense of the smiling outward face disguising levers being pulled within. But to have visited this place for the first time these past seven days has been to return to a purer, more understated, less cynical version of sport, one the fast-running world had seemed to have left behind. Spieth has been its epitome, though the sense of beautiful simplicity has reached well beyond his words and deeds.
Not even Spieth’s putter is that good.
Some of this is just the sportswriting circle of life. Spieth is flawless … until we can feast on more interesting stories: his first spat with the media (“Crossing Jordan”), his midcareer slump (“Err Jordan”), and then the inevitable Mickelson-like dotage, in which the press roots for him to use his sly skill to win one last major (“Wisdom Spieth”).
It’s one thing to let Spieth cast a moral glow over the rest of the leaderboard. But by fetishizing his goodness, we imply that a golfer who swears a lot, who occasionally blows off the press, and who wouldn’t mind dating Kendall Jenner is a bad guy. There are golfers like that on the sport’s Mount Rushmore.
In its fragmented, post-Tiger state, the PGA Tour has become a fascinating study in identity politics. “Jordan Spieth has this audience,” Kerr-Dineen said. “Rory McIlroy has Europeans. Bubba Watson has Southern guys. It’s almost like wrestling, where everybody can pick a guy they identify with.
“People fell in line to bow down to Jordan Spieth in the way they didn’t with Tiger,” Kerr-Dineen continued. “I think because people tend to look at Jordan Spieth and see themselves. They see his background, and they see what they want to be: a polite, mild-mannered, country-club kid … He is their kind of millennial.”
Hold my steno pad, will you? I want to climb up onstage and look through Jordan Spieth’s eyes. To find out what he gets out of his relations with the press. Admiring stories? Endorsement cash? That’s a start.
But there’s something more primal here, too. Spieth belongs to a subcategory of Nice Young Men: He’s a Nice Young Texan. I was one once, too, and still can be when required, like when I see Mom’s friends across the room in a Tex-Mex restaurant.
A Nice Young Texan is trained, almost from birth, to yes-sir and no-ma’am. To establish eye contact. To call everybody “Mister” (a courtesy Spieth once extended even to Bubba Watson). To comb his hair and tuck in his shirt and not wear anything that isn’t “classy.” The sum of these niceties is to uphold a regional code of conduct — and, mostly, to please strangers. A Nice Young Texan knows no greater reward than hearing his mom’s friend say in a stage whisper, “Your son is such a nice young man.”
After Friday’s second round in Akron, Doug Ferguson asked Spieth, “Why don’t you play golf left-handed?”
“To give everybody else a chance,” Spieth said, finishing the joke.
As if on cue, Spieth added: “Don’t quote me on that.” For if there’s anything a Nice Young Texan doesn’t want, it’s for his niceness to be revealed as a front. The integrity of the artifice — if that’s the right term — is everything.
During the ascendance of Jordan Spieth, a question has floated through the mind of nearly every golf writer: Could Spieth really be this abominably nice? Is it all a show? He isn’t acting, unless it’s Method acting. What Spieth gets out of his love affair with the golf media is no less than a fulfillment of his birthright. In Akron, I found myself in the position of a pro admiring another’s work. Yessir, I thought, that is a Nice Young Man, telling ’em what they want to hear and relishing the applause.