The Energetics of Jordan Spieth’s Meltdown

I had a very busy Sunday, and so was only able to dip my head occasionally into the Masters. When I checked on Spieth during the latter holes of the front nine, he was several strokes ahead and seemed to be cruising. But when I checked back a couple of hours later, I found Spieth several strokes back, and the commentators were talking about a "meltdown." After looking a sure thing to win his second Masters in a row at the age of 22, he ended up having to put the Green Jacket on Danny Willett.

A few days later, Jerry and I spoke about it. "The energy of it was fascinating," he said. "You should watch and see what you think."

So I did.

Because I hadn't been able to pay close attention on Sunday, I first went and did a little research. Just how had the round played out before Spieth's meltdown? What had Spieth done to be cruising during the earlier part of his round? I looked at his scorecard, and what I saw grabbed my interest. After a bogey on five, he birdied the next four holes, and started the back nine with a five-stroke lead.

I went back to five and watched from there.

On five, his drive left him on the left side of the fairway behind some trees. For his second shot, he attempted a low-margin sharp hook that he failed to fully execute, leaving himself with a challenging chip just off the grandstand on the side of the green. He then two-putted for a bogey. Though laying up may have been a better play, it was hard to fault his aggressiveness.

Afterwards, he played beautifully. His approach play left him easy putts on seven and eight, but his birdie putts on six and nine were both quite challenging. When he made the last of these, he had moved himself to -7. He genuinely appeared to be cruising.

With my foreknowledge of what was about to happen, I expected to see someone either overconfident or not paying full attention as he started the back nine. Instead, as he took his tee shot, I noticed that he seemed slightly hunched at the upper back. His normally erect posture seemed a little curved in on itself. Now, I don't yet have a particularly practiced eye for golf technique, but I recognize this posture from my own hitting. Indeed, in my own practice, I've been working on trying to stand more erect and pull the shoulders back in order to open the chest. "If I'm right in what I'm seeing," I thought, "He'll hit it right." And he did. His 3-wood off the tee landed in the rough. On his next shot his body alignment looked similar. I predicted that he'd be short and to the right. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. The ball landed in the bunker on the front right of the green. His sand shot looked lazy and he left it well short of the pin. He missed his par-putt about a foot right, and holed in for bogey.

Meanwhile, Danny Willett had a chance for eagle on the par-5 13th, missed but managed a birdie. A five-stroke advantage had just become three.

Spieth hit driver off eleven, and his swing looked better to me, but he went right again, into the trees, and left himself no shot at the green. He had no choice but to chip out to the fairway. His next shot was announced as "122 yards," and he hit right at the pin, ending up below the hole, about six feet away. His par putt missed just below the hole, and he tapped in for bogey.

Meanwhile, on 14, Willett put his drive into the second cut, then hit a beautiful second shot to within three or four feet of the pin. After Willett made his birdie putt, Spieth's five-stroke advantage had fallen to one.

There was a huge grandstand behind the tee on the par-3 twelfth, and I have to assume there was a leaderboard there as well, and I have to assume that Spieth saw it. Because, again, I watched his shoulders hunch forward and his back curl slightly downward. Once again, he hit short and right. The ball hit below the green and fell back into Raes Creek.

His wedge from the drop zone looked even more extreme. Watch the curve in his upper back and the way his shoulders extend away from his body:

That's one of the worst shots you're likely to ever see a professional golfer hit.

Now lying five, and desperate to not leave his next shot short, he hit well long into the back bunker. He got out of the sand and close to the pin for his sixth shot, and then made his putt for a quadruple-bogey seven.

As this was happening, Willett's tee shot on the par-5 15th left him needing to lay up. He pitched close, then two-putted for par, staying at -4. His playing partner, Lee Westwood, rolled over the green for his second shot, then hit an amazing chip for eagle to go to -3. On 14, Dustin Johnson made par to stay at -2. Spieth's quadruple dropped him from -5 and the lead to -1, into a tie for fourth.

It is a testimony to how good he is that he was still in contention late in the round, that he didn't freak out completely and shoot like eighteen-over the rest of the way. At the same time, isn't it interesting that once he'd lost the lead in so dramatic a fashion, his play immediately improved?

So what happened? I wouldn't be surprised if, as he made the turn, he thought to himself, "So long as I don't collapse, I've got this in the bag." As Jerry likes to point out, "The body doesn't know 'not.'" By thinking something like collapse, he engendered in his body the fear to do exactly that. The extension of his shoulders and the curve of his upper back look like someone collapsing his body around his heart to protect himself from fear. It's something I see a lot with my beginning ski students--and something I have recently noticed in myself in both skiing and golf. In Spieth's case, by fighting the fear, he put more energy into it, thereby enabling it. Once the collapse was done, he could release the energy, relax and resume playing his game, though sadly now no longer from a position to win.

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