IT SOUNDED strange to hear him being likened to a gunfighter one minute then being described as the “nicest kid in the world”. Jordan Spieth, however, has many qualities, all of which were evident as the 21-year-old set a new record 36-hole total for the Masters after rounds of 64 and 66 to open up a five-shot lead at the halfway stage.
“When I first met him, I tell you, I’ll never forget it,” declared Ben Crenshaw, a fellow Texan and two-times winner here. “I looked right at him and he looked at me and I thought I was looking at Wyatt Earp... he looks at you and he’s going to gun you down.”
‘He’s definitely an old head on young shoulders’
Like Earp in the bloody gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Spieth didn’t miss with many of the bullets he fired on the opening two days in the 79th staging of the season’s opening major. He’d negotiated those with only one bogey on the card and even that came from the middle of a fairway – at the 15th in the opening round.
“The kid is phenomenal,” said Nick Faldo, who also shot 130 for the first two rounds in the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield. “It’s his mental strength. People are talking about him being like Jack Nicklaus in that respect, which is impressive.”
Spieth is making only his second appearance here. Even taking into account the fact he finished joint second 12 months ago, it is astonishing that he seems to have mastered the test so quickly. “He has this great ability to assess things with his caddie and his execution is spot on,” added Faldo. “Ninety-five per cent of his shots are landing in the right place and that’s impressive. Wow, does he learn fast.”
Part of that learning process has been spent in Scotland. In 2010 he played on a winning United States team in the Junior Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The following year, he picked up two and a half points from three matches but ended up on the losing side, this time in the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen.
Then, of course, he returned to Gleneagles last September as a member of a Ryder Cup team and, along with Patrick Reed, set out his intent to be a bright light for the Americans in that event for a long time to come.
“He’s a quality player,” said Graeme McDowell, who had to produce a gutsy performance to beat Spieth in the singles in Perthshire. “He seems to have that extra gear. He put a similar performance to this in at Orlando last year, at Tiger’s event. On a tough course he kept accelerating away from the field.”
Spieth has had his foot pressing hard on the pedal since producing a hugely-impressive performance to win the Australian Open by six shots towards the end of last year. He’d arrived here on the back of a run that had produced a win and two second places in his last three events.
“He’s a great scorer,” added Crenshaw of the Lone Star state’s new golfing superstar. “God, can he score. What I really like is Jordan’s fire. You can see it bubble up and I like that. But he seems to keep it in check.”
Spieth is the man to take over Tiger Woods’ mantle as the darling of the American golfing public. They like Rory McIlroy, but he’s not one of Uncle Sam’s boys. They want one of their own and Spieth is their best bet to become world No.1. “I see a lot of parallels between him and Tiger,” confessed Mark O’Meara, a winner of both this major and also the Open Championship. “Jordan is just such a great individual, too, on top of what he’s performed on the golf course. He gained a lot of experience last year certainly contending here and a lot of other tournaments.
“He was a heck of a junior player, a heck of a college player and now he’s burst on the scene on Tour. He’s got off to a fabulous start this year with a win and has come into this event in red-hot form. He’s also the most respectful, polite young man you’ll ever come across.”
Henrik Stenson, the world No.2, watched from close quarters – as one his playing partners – as Spieth produced his masterclass to beat a record that Ray Floyd had set back in 1976. “He’s definitely an old head on young shoulders, isn’t he?” said the Swede. “He’s playing strategically. He’s playing very mature.”
Gushing, too, about Spieth at the halfway stage was Ernie Els. He’s seen plenty of young guns show potential without necessarily going on to fulfil it. He believes Spieth is the real deal, though, and won’t take long to prove it, whether that’s this weekend or Chambers Bay, St Andrews or Whistling Straits – the venues for the three other majors this season.
“What a player,” said the South African, a four-times major champion. “You just cannot see this kid not win many, many majors. I think he’s by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen. He’s got that little tenacity to him and he’s really got a fighting spirit. He’s also the nicest kid in the world.” They say nice guys don’t win. Spieth has proved that wrong already with two PGA Tour titles in addition to that aforementioned success in Australia. He missed out on the chance to become the youngest Masters champion when Bubba Watson overtook him on the back nine 12 months ago. Far from being scarred by that disappointment, however, it has merely whetted his appetite to go one better. How fitting that would be if that happened in the week Crenshaw, his mentor, said farewell to this event after 44 years. “He keeps raising our expectations then exceeds them,” said leading golf analyst Brandel Chamblee in summing up the Spieth story so far.