At Spieth’s age, it would be easy to view the future as a highway that he can drive on cruise control all night long. But the road is never smooth. There will be blind curves and detours, flat tires and overheated engines, starless nights and sunless days.
The proof is all around him. Look at Jimmy Walker, who became a first-time major winner at last year’s P.G.A. Championship and then helped the United States to the Ryder Cup. He anticipated a luminous 2017, but a Lyme disease diagnosis in April sidelined him for over a month. It continues to sap his strength. Walker has one top-10 finish in 19 official tour events, and he can’t be sure how he’ll feel from one round to the next.
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“This is just life, and bad things happen sometimes,” Walker said.
“I’m just glad that I’m feeling better,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of stuff that is lingering.”
Spieth is on the kind of roll that Walker imagined for himself when he held aloft the Wanamaker Trophy last summer. In 18 starts this season, Spieth has eight top-10 finishes, including three victories.
With momentum comes a kind of amnesia. Even the best are served reminders that they are mortals, not magicians.
For Ernie Els, that moment came on the Sunday of the 1995 P.G.A. Championship. Els, then 25 and already a United States Open winner, shot sub-70 scores at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles in each of the first three rounds to take a three-stroke lead into the final day. He closed with a two-over 72 to finish tied for third. In 74 subsequent rounds at the P.G.A. Championship, Els has never again held the lead.
He won a second U.S. Open in 1997, three years after his first, and added the 2002 and 2012 British Open titles. Els’s four major titles propelled him into the World Golf Hall of Fame. But Els expected to be farther along Glory Road by now.
“In ’95, I had a three-shot lead going to the P.G.A., couldn’t get it done and in ’96 missed out on another very narrow loss,” Els said, referring to his tie for second at the British Open, two strokes behind Tom Lehman. “And I kind of stalled.”
Around the same time, a youngster named Tiger Woods materialized like a boulder in his path. “When Tiger came in ’97, and him winning the Masters in the way he did,” Els said, referring to Woods’s 12-stroke victory for the first of his 14 major titles, “that kind of threw me off a little bit. I thought I was really one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf.”
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Els finished second to Woods at the United States and British Opens in 2000. He also recorded a couple of thirds in majors that Woods won.
“I could have had a couple more, definitely, with him around,” Els said with a rueful smile.
On the road that Spieth is speeding along now, who is to say that he won’t be passed at some point by Hideki Matsuyama of Japan? Or by some teenager from China who pops up on the horizon?
Of course, Spieth should savor what he has already accomplished.
“It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that’s so fresh in my mind,” he said Wednesday, referring to the British Open. “I’m so happy about that that I can’t add pressure to this week. I’m free-rolling, and it feels good.”
With a victory, Spieth can surpass Woods as the youngest to win all four majors. And he’d do it in a fashion that befits his fastidiousness on the course — chronologically in the order in which they are played during the year, starting with the Masters and then the U.S. Open in 2015.
“Do I have to be the youngest?” he said. “No, I don’t feel that kind of pressure. Would it be really cool? Absolutely.”
Spieth added: “I’m here, so I’m going to go ahead and try. But I believe I’m going to have plenty of chances, and I’m young enough to believe in my abilities that it will happen at some point.”
But he knows not to take his foot off the gas or his eyes off the Wanamaker Trophy. The road that looks so seductive now can rise up to defeat him.
“If I don’t win one in the next 10 years,” Spieth said, referring to the P.G.A. Championship, “then maybe there’s added pressure then. Hopefully we don’t have to have this conversation in 10 years.”