At prizefights they loiter ringside and at basketball arenas they loll in courtside seats. Hollywood actors love sport as we do but perhaps they particularly admire athletes for the genuineness of their pain and felicity in controlling their emotions. No one, after all, camouflages despair better than the defeated athlete.
He wants to break a club and yet emerges stoically to face the media. He feels worthless and yet buries his grief to speak generously of his rival. He gathers his rage and self-pity and masks it with a tight smile.
So it was with Jordan Spieth, who drowned his dream with a quadruple bogey at the 12th, failed to win the Masters but was still masterful. We know he can win on Sundays but on this one he told us he knew how to lose. As the winner Danny Willett noted: "He shook my hand like the true gent he is. He's a class act to be able to hold face like that, hurting like I imagine he would be."
As much as athletes are overpaid, some compensation is due to them for this: Only their failures, not ours, are broadcast to a voyeuristic world. And so yesterday as Spieth finished on the 18th hole, a cameraman dutifully trailed him till he spoke. Later an ESPN journalist revealed that his words were: "Just not in the face. Please. Not right now in the face, please, OK." For at least a few seconds he was owed privacy by a planet.
Twice Spieth said "please" and even in pain he is polite. Twice he used the word "face" because it's a window to who he is. If he's testy about a shot he'll show it and if he hits it into the water for a second time at the 12th hole he'll just turn away. As if he's lost face and is unable to temporarily accept his imperfection.
This is what makes Spieth riveting to watch, for he is not a Mickelson high-wire walker or a Woods-like intimidator. But ambition is engraved on the face of this hard-grinding, no-surrender, careful-thinking golfer. If he played a one-on-one sport, rivals would abhor him because he'd have to be beaten and victory clawed from his fierce grip.
And yet on Sunday, defeat was self-inflicted, and that was the surprise. He decided on a draw on the 12th but then hit a cut. He should have gone to the drop zone but oddly chose not to. As pressure clogged the clear mind of a defending champion with a five-shot lead this was cruel and captivating. Hell found on a heavenly corner of a course.
Spieth - it is said - choked, bungled and folded. There is no critical word he won't hear and yet not a single one will be as severe as what he tells himself. He will be likened to Rory McIlroy at the 2011 Masters and the comparison fits like a poorly stitched jacket. McIlroy triple-bogeyed the 10th, bogeyed the 11th, double-bogeyed the 12th; Spieth followed a quadruple bogey at the 12th with two birdies in three holes. This was a Major mishap, not a meltdown.
Yet golfing fiascos are awful, for they occur in slow motion. It's worse than leading and losing in tennis for here no tiredness can fell you nor any rival's skill directly cause your fall. It's just you and your frailty on a lonely walk with a single thought: How could I? How did I?
Spieth drowned his dream with a quadruple bogey at the 12th, failed to win the Masters but was still masterful. We know he can win on Sundays but on this one he told us he knew how to lose.
All those hours of practice are never for nothing but defeat can make it feel that way. It's like a hollowing out of the self and no arm on a shoulder works as a balm. In 2007, when Rafael Nadal lost to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, he wrote that he "cried incessantly for half an hour".
Maybe Spieth went home and later wept but at the course, at his lowest point in a young golfing life, he found decency. He confessed that after four birdies on the front nine he may have got "conservative", he admitted to a "lack of discipline" at the 12th, and he revealed that he told caddie Michael Greller, "Buddy, it seems like we're collapsing".
We'll never quite know the measure of his misery but we do know that at 22 he owns a preternatural poise. He applauded Willett, put on his green jacket and straightened the collar of the preacher's son who had stolen his Sunday dream. Then he stepped quietly to the side. The cameras which worshipped him most of the day, now no longer needed him.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Grace in defeat reiterates how Spieth masters his emotions'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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