The reflex reaction was to flinch when Jordan Spieth was pressed on precisely which film he had watched on the night before he won the Masters.
But this is the world beyond the sensitivities and jealously guarded space of Premier League football so he shared the story of sitting though the rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall – “one of the greatest movies in the world!” – and volunteered the joke he had shared with his caddie Michael Greller on the first tee and also offered up what he had texted Greller hours before they set off around Augusta National together.
It was an entrancing champion’s speech; 25 minutes of untutored confidence, self-deprecation, openness, modernity. The traditional winner’s routine of going through his card, round by round, turned into something new in this 21-year-old’s hands – a detailed retrospective walk through his decisions and challenges. He took 2,600 words to do so, yet the re-telling of his work with a three-wood and five-iron at the 13th was more memorable than most golf correspondents could have managed.
President Obama knew he could use golf’s running joke about Spieth’s youthfulness for an ice-breaking laugh at a recent White House reception for Presidents Cup participants. “Spieth told me that this is the first suit he’s ever bought,” the president said. The young man grinned.
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.
The National is a place where rules apply and though to ban “noise- or music-making devices” – yes, they really do – might sound Victorian, the prohibition of mobile phones or any other electronic means of communication restores the sport to a bygone place. One in which good, old-fashioned word of mouth spread the news that Tiger Woods was on the golf course for his practice round last Monday. And one which re-establishes the old need to watch and write while following a player on his round, rather than punching abbreviated bulletins into a phone keypad. You saw more.
Meanwhile,the masses waiting for Spieth on the 18th green on Sunday night did not view this climatic moment through the tiny window of a smartphone camera. They saw more.
The sanctity of sport is preserved for the players, too. It sounds self–defeating to speak gratefully of the media not crowding in but there was something welcome in the exclusion of writers and cameras from the players’ place “behind the ropes”. It was something purer we saw when the last, long walk up the hill to the 18th fairway came on Sunday. Just Spieth, Justin Rose and their caddies. You gave thanks for the wonderful simplicity of that.
No one suffered. The words still poured out in good time. The story of Spieth’s extraordinary 10 minutes at the 11th fairway – taking it upon himself to attempt to get spectators back 12 feet, out of the line of his recovery shot from the pine trees – was unspoilt by Twitter when the moment finally came to type it all out. This is a place which knows about telling stories.
Another of the throwbacks is the local Augusta Chronicle – testament to the investment in local newspapers that America knows but Britain forgets and part of a group, in family ownership, which sustains titles from Amarillo to Jacksonville, Lubbock to Tapeko. The notion of a local paper employing a golf correspondent would be laughable to us in the United Kingdom now. The Chronicle’s Scott Michaux produces one of the most essential daily columns from Augusta.
An anachronism – just like another significant aspect of these four days of competition: the way the spectators are not taken for a fortune. Augusta’s international TV rights ($25m – £17m) and ticket sales ($34.75m – £23.6m) help the event generate $115m (£73m) in revenue, so no one sees the need to turn the event into the type of money-making enterprise that Premier League football has become. Car parking is free. Free. A beer is $4.50 (£3). This is the world of the $1.50 (£1) sandwiches and $2 (£1.36) ice cream. For the 60th successive year, the event has been broadcast free to air domestically by CBS, in a deal on which neither the club nor the TV network makes a profit. That’s quite a decision, considering Fox Sports agreed to pay $93m (£63m) for the US Open, US Women’s Open and US Seniors Open two years ago. The reward is in the viewing figures: last year’s Masters’ ratings were more than twice those of the US Open.
All of which helps explain why the simple modernity of Spieth – whose victory means that for the first time the No 1 and 2 in world golf are aged 25 or under – was such a rich source of delight to those few at the deserted club yesterday. They were recalling a lot, not least his assured handling of questions about his 14-year-old autistic sister Ellie, which was in keeping with all the rest…
The champion had not pretended that Ellie had grasped what was going on, when she had joined his family to watch him go close to winning the Shell Houston Open at the start of the month – a competition Spieth was angry to have lost in a play-off. “You know, after each round last week, she was out there in Houston and after each round, she said, ‘Jordan, did you win? Did you win?,’” Spieth related. “ And I said, ‘Not yet, not yet, No.’ And now I can tell her I won.” The room dissolved into laughter. A winner and a tournament with class.
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