Looking back, the whole situation was really gross. Sure, yes, Jordan was in trouble. But that very same day, at nearly the same time, I was also in one hell of a pickle. Under no circumstances that could be anywhere near the vicinity of normal would either of us have even considered doing what we were about to do. But life has a funny way of turning. And after the late summer months of 2017, both of ours would be changed forever.
On July 23, 2017, Jordan Spieth was at Royal Birkdale in the south of England. And I was at the Fremont hotel in Chicago, vigorously shaking my head no to a very nice waitress while my supposed friends howled with laughter. She called it a birthday cake shot. It had been a long weekend, and this all felt like a bridge too far: she was holding a plastic tube of Jameson whiskey that would be jabbed into a rainbow-sprinkled cupcake that I would then stuff into my mouth. For reasons that now escape me, my friend Graham and I had to do it. I abhor Jameson, and I don’t even particularly like birthday cake—oh, that awful icing. And how long had that cupcake been sitting out in the brunch buffet? Was this even safe? It was one of those times in your life when, despite the madness going on all round you, you have a moment of clarity: How did I get here? And how do I get out of this?
OK, so I knew how I got there. Ten dudes, bachelor party, full send. We went the traditional route: overpriced steaks, closing down the hotel bar, watching one of our friends plow through several beers and rip his shirt off in the sun-dappled bleachers of Wrigley Field.
Now it was Sunday. Grizzled party veterans know that Sunday on these trips is many things: It’s the day when real life peeks its dastardly head over the wall of your debauchery and reminds you that sooner than you would like, you’re going to have to take off that stupid hat, pack what’s left of your shit and get home. But it’s also the day when the truly debased separate themselves. It’s the day when some people—men and women who will later be hailed as champions on the post-party text thread—look real life dead in the face, shout “Not today, Satan!” and pop another bottle.
Our plan all along was to become champions. Being in Chicago on this weekend was no accident: We wanted Wrigley, we wanted deep dish pizza, and we wanted to keep the party going through the final round of the Open Championship. And hoo boy did it deliver.
History nerds such as myself will tell you that in the grand scheme, six years isn’t much. Right, of course things happened. Entire world wars happened. A pandemic happened. But broadly, six years is a blip. Even in golf, you can pick almost any six-year stretch, and all you really need to do is list the major winners and maybe one or two other big moments and you’ve got things summed up nicely.
But these last six years? Holy SHIT I am exhausted. 2017 feels like 60 years ago. Because I love and respect you, the listener, I will not mention anything that has gone on. I will simply trust that you too are exhausted, and if you are using my droning voice as a way to take a well-deserved nap, then I applaud you and am extremely jealous.
Rather, let us travel all the way back to the quaint, sepia tones of July 2017, when golf‘s biggest problems were Tiger’s pill bottle and whether the PGA Championship should move to May. The golf world gathered in Southport, England, where the action on the course really was the most important thing.
OK, quick timeout to talk Royal Birkdale. In the grand listing of Open rota venues, there are of course St Andrews, Carnoustie, and Muirfield. Cool alternative kids might hit you with St. George’s or even Portrush. But I’m here to tell you that Birkdale needs more love. Quick rundown of Birkdale’s 10 champions:
1954: Peter Thomson! What a classy start.
1961: Arnold Palmer does the reverse Beatles Coming to America thing, makes grown men and women shriek like little kids, and wins his first of two consecutive Opens.
1965: Peter Thomson again! Australia’s finest wins the last of his 5 Open titles.
1971: Lee Trevino wins the 100th Open Championship. Odds my man walked into the Dunvegan and asked for a Bud Light? Decent!
1976: Johnny Miller wins in easily the greatest performance by a man wearing red and blue plaid bell bottoms with a white belt. I miss Johnny.
1983: Tom Watson wins the last of his five Opens. Please YouTube his 2-iron on 18 on Sunday in the safety of your own home. Yeesh.
1991: Finchy! This was the brief, shining moment when people were like, “How many majors is Ian Baker Finch gonna win?” Wild times.
1998: Mark O’Meara. Tiger was so good back then that just palling around together at Isleworth netted O’Meara two majors.
2008: Padraig Harrington wins again, becoming the first player to win back to back Opens since James Braid in 1905-06. The Open Championship has the best stats. Sidenote: Padraig’s profile pic on openchampionship.com is perfect: A magnificent, unkempt salt-n-pepper beard and this absolutely bamboozled look on his face, like, “Ehhh, this insane gadget I just bought after watching that 2am Golf Channel ad sure has a lot of parts, but it’s gonna WORK!”
Alright, so now we’re back at Birkdale in 2017, and people are wondering which Hall of Fame-level champion is going to do something special. Problem is, no one has any idea. Golf’s in a weird spot. To be fair, so is most of pop culture. This was the year that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty somehow announced La La Land won Best Picture instead of Moonlight; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got engaged and lived happily ever after with zero controversy; Kendrick dropped Humble and Taylor Swift released Reputation (which was fine, but I’m a Folklore and Midnights guy).
Am I going to gloss over Harvey Weinstein and the birth of the Me Too movement, James Comey, Charlottesville, the galactically stupid NFL kneeling controversy and every single one of Trump’s tweets? Yes I am. Look, it’s important for me to paint the wider world we’re in during 2017, not dwell on it. After all, this is a golf/bachelor party podcast where, eventually, we’ll discuss someone hitting a 5-iron over a goddamn fleet of equipment trucks in perhaps the greatest bogey in major championship history.
So, before a single shot is struck at Birkdale, there is much hand-wringing over golf’s elite. Again, huge problems. The last seven majors have all been claimed by first-time major winners. Tiger is still in the wilderness, 20 long months from doing his thing at Augusta. Dustin Johnson, who finally broke through at the US Open in Oakmont in 2016, seemed like he was the next king, but then he fell down potentially the most fateful steps in golf history before the Masters earlier in the year, and he’s now a massive question mark.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: People are concerned about Rory going into this thing. All the previews are saying things like, “he’s searching for something” and “maybe our expectations for him are out of whack” and “it’s been a long time since he won a major.” Poor bastard.
Brooks Koepka won his first major a month prior at the US Open, but no one knows if it’s a fluke. Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler are good, but mostly still hashtag Spring Break 2016 guys. Jimmy Walker and Danny Willett also recently won big ones. Sergio won the Masters. Shit’s wild out here. Then there is Jordan Spieth. He is playing incredible, with a wins earlier this year at the AT&T in Pebble Beach and the Travelers, where he holed his now-iconic bunker shot and launched into the even more iconic full-body-jump celebration with Michael Greller.
So, why isn’t he the prohibitive favorite? You know why. You know what happened in 2016. You know the hole. It’s too soon. Wounds are too fresh. Yeah I don’t want to talk about it yet either.
Alright, let’s GOLF. First round! Spieth does some Spieth things around the greens on his way to 5-under 65 and a share of the lead with Koepka and Matt Kuchar. He is happy, everyone is happy. I’m leaving for Chicago in the morning.
Second round! Hell yesssss, Open Championship weather. Bring the pain! The winds kick up to 35 mph and the R&A calls a 15-minute break to squeegee rain off the greens. Squeegees! It’s beautiful. Just eight players break par, including Spieth, who shoots 1 under and is up two heading into the weekend.
Third round! The Brandon Grace round. He becomes the first player in a men’s major to record a 62. Woo, Brandon! You don’t win. Sorry, mate. Spieth fires another 65 and takes a three-shot lead into the final round over Matt Kuchar.
OK, It’s time. Before we get to Sunday and the Titleist truck and whether or not I’m going to take this horrifying birthday cake shot, we must finally talk about the thing we do not want to talk about.
Masters Sunday in April 2016, and Jordan Spieth was standing on the 12th tee with a one-shot lead. At the turn the lead was five and he was cruising. It felt like the back nine would be a coronation of the game’s new dominant force. The young Texan, who many people literally called the Golden Child, was the storybook heir to Tiger’s throne. Hogan-Palmer-Nicklaus-Tiger-Jordan. It all felt perfect.
And then it wasn’t. Over the next three holes, we would learn something—the most important thing—about Jordan Spieth. He was not made in a lab. He is human. The most human, in fact. Spencer Hall, our greatest living college football writer who I somehow tricked into writing a golf story for TGJ No. 14, has a gift of turning the very relatable human condition of life kicking you in the teeth into something beautiful and hopeful, even if, especially if, the teeth kicking is entirely your fault. His TGJ story is about a fictional video game hero named Ray Ray Whitley. Ray Ray does not win the Masters. He’s been divorced three times and has had to sleep in his car many more times than that. He knows he’s fucked up, in public, a lot. But he also knows he can’t quit. He keeps teeing it up. He keeps going. Because you have to.
Jordan Spieth dumped two tragic, heartbreaking balls in the water on No. 12. His collapse is and will remain one of the most shocking in golf history. He fucked up in public. Big.
And then … he kept going. Because he had to. The Golden Child label, which was silly and unfair, was gone, shipwrecked in the depths of Rae’s Creek. And in its place came something much more real, and ultimately more meaningful.
Over time, the blinding, white-hot supernova of Spieth’s early career has given way to his true self: A supremely gifted, supremely flawed golfer who can take us to dizzying heights and rough-riddled, bogey-strewn, deeply relatable lows. His unpredictability and his vulnerability have endeared him to golf fans in a way that even Tiger never could. For all his very public mistakes, Tiger is too good. His records are too high in the stratosphere. He is a God. And we can’t relate to a God. But we all know exactly how it feels to hit your second shot from the fucking driving range back into play.
As far as I can tell, the earliest mention of the Spieth Island gag on Golf Twitter was from friend of the program DJ Piehowski in 2020. I’m guessing it goes back further. The joke is that it’s easy to root for the robots and the favorites. Only the brave will live on Spieth Island. DJ summed it up with a tweet last year: “Spieth Island is an idyllic, transcendent place that frequently gets rocked by cataclysmic storms.” Every time one of my golf gambling buddies takes Spieth, someone inevitably replies with a roller coaster gif. (Yes, I say GIF. No, I’m not getting into it. This is not a linguistics pod. It’s a Golf/Bachelor Party/Roller Coaster pod.)
There are no residents on Spieth Island in July 2017. The 2016 Masters is still fresh, and no one quite knows how to process Spieth with another big lead on a major Sunday. As my still-drunk friends and I settle into our seats at the Fremont hotel brunch party, we ask the hostess to turn the enormous TV onto the telecast, where we, along with everyone on the planet except the Kuchar family, are horrified to watch Spieth bogey three of his first four holes to give up his lead.
They arrive at the 13th tee tied at 8 under. Kooch dumps his drive into the right rough just off the fairway. Then Jordan uncorks one of the worst drives any of us have ever seen a pro hit, and also a drive we personally know too well. Imagine the entire Fremont brunch party turning to look at 10 grown men throwing their mimosas and screaming “OH NOOOOO!!” as Jordan puts both hands on top of his head in disbelief and the cameras cut to the entire gallery turning away from the fairway, to look for the ball that sailed over them into the heather.
Now, picture those same 10 dudes trying to figure out what in the hell is happening next. The folks at the Fremont were nice enough to turn on the TV, but they politely decline our request to turn off Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow for the broadcast audio. We’re scrolling Twitter, somebody calls a friend who is a rules official at the PGA Tour, we don’t know anything, because, well, nobody does.
In TGJ Podcast No. 84, the delightful David Bonsall, the rules official who had to sort through the mess of Spieth’s drop in the driving range next to the equipment trucks, joined us to explain it all. It’s a good one! It’s got all the details I am skipping over right now. You should go back and listen.
Anyway, Jordan hits 3-iron back near the green, plays a delicate, next-to-impossible shot over a bunker and makes a tricky putt to save bogey. Some early speculators immediately Google oceanfront lots on what will become Spieth Island.
Everyone remembers Jordan’s shot from the range, but not many remember exactly what came next. After all the stress and drama of losing his lead, of the bogey on 13, of being down one with five to play, of all the demons of Augusta in his and everyone else’s head, he keeps going. Because he has to.
He would later recount his elegant but extraordinarily difficult solution: “I just found it within me to say, ‘Jordan you’re not letting this happen to yourself again.’”
And, somehow, he nearly holes it on the par-3 14th and makes birdie to tie the lead. Then he eagles 15. Birdies 16 and 17. Wins by three. So, to recap: Birkdale needs more respect and whenever anyone talks about Spieth’s equipment truck shot, you tell them the more incredible thing is that he went 5 under on the next five holes.
Now he’s celebrating, and we are too. We’ve made some friends in the Fremont, explaining to anyone who will listen that this Jordan Spieth guy is amazing! We have no idea what he’s gonna do next! More champagne!
Anyway, life has a funny way of turning. That day in 2017, Jordan began a new journey: No longer as the Golden Child, but as the people’s champion. My journey as a bachelor party champion also mostly came to a close. The next month would bring Issue No. 1 of the Golfer’s Journal. The month after that brought my first daughter.
We all make mistakes, and we will continue to make them. For all his magic, Jordan has blown himself out of too many majors to count since Birkdale. I took that fucking birthday cake shot. It was even worse than I thought it would be. But Monday always comes. And we all keep going. Because we have to.
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