Jordan Spieth plays golf at a level so far above most of us that it sometimes seems like he’s playing an entirely different game. And, yet, this 24-year-old phenom in some ways plays the game exactly like most of us. His game, in fact, provides a microcosm of life and leadership, and reflects many of the reasons I’ve come to value transparency in leadership.
Spieth is transparent in all the best ways. He doesn’t over-share the details of his life, but he is genuine and authentic in the way he plays and in the way he interacts with people. He doesn’t dodge his emotions or tough questions. He just puts himself out there, earning trust and respect by simply being himself under pressure. And he creates a likability factor without sacrificing credibility or respect.
All of this was on full display Sunday as he endured what was one of the most gut-wrenching-turned-heart-stopping final rounds in the history of the British Open.
Spieth started the day with a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar, but he faded into a tie after 12 holes. Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal described it as a “bad round – filled with head shakes and pull-aways from simple 3-foot putts.” Then, as if to seal his fate, Spieth sliced his tee shot on No. 13 so far to the right and over a huge sand dune that he had to take a one-shot penalty and play his next shot from the driving range.
After a 20-minute delay to determine the rules and take his shot, Spieth went up to Kuchar on the green, shook his hand, and apologized for taking so long. What a classy guy, I thought as I watched the drama unfold on television.
At that point, it looked like he could kiss the Claret Jug goodbye. Miraculously, however, he made bogey on the hole, so he trailed by only one shot. Then he went on a tear, out-dueling the veteran and highly likable Kuchar by recording three birdies and an eagle over the final five holes to win. Spieth won his third major title just a few days before turning 24, a feat matched only by the great Jack Nicklaus.
Futterman appreciates Spieth for the same reason most of us appreciate him: because Spieth, “thankfully never does a very good job of hiding his frailties.” Spieth admits that his poor play on the first 12 holes Sunday had him thinking about his meltdown in the Master’s just 15 months ago when he blew a five-shot lead over the final nine holes. He confesses that he can’t sleep before playing the final round of big tournaments when he’s in contention for the title. And he grabs his head when he hits a poor shot and he yells at his ball when it’s in mid-flight or rolling across the green.
“There’s no need to watch Spieth’s ball when he is playing,” Futterman wrote. “Just watch him. He’ll tell you what’s going on. For a dozen years, Tiger Woods was a superhuman golfing robot, rarely flinching with a lead, closing tournaments with computer-like precision. Spieth is the opposite of that. Spieth is us.”
Yet, Spieth isn’t temperamental. He may yet learn to handle his nerves better, but he already handles them better than most golfers. Even when he fell apart on the course in the 2016 Master’s, he handled himself with class, as it happened and in the aftermath. And when the lug nuts came lose Sunday, he found a way to not tighten them down and finish strong.
Spieth is likable because of his unique ability to compete in a humble and amiable way. It’s not just because he shows us those frailties, but because he then rises above them. That’s what we want to do as leaders. We know we have frailties – that we hit our share of wicked slices into the wilderness. We might never learn to hit a 3-iron 230 yards over a hill of sand toward a green we can’t see so that we can go on to win a major golf championship. But are we authentic enough to let the world see our frailties and frustrations yet still calm and confident enough to collect our wits, make good decisions, and move forward in ways that set us up for victory? That’s what Spieth can teach us.
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