To get a sense of where Jordan Spieth is heading into the 2016 Masters tournament you have to go back to his debut at Augusta National, in 2014. There, he started the final round in a tie for the lead on five under with Bubba Watson. Spieth, who had turned professional on the back of a stellar amateur career, showed no sign of nerves on one of the most important Sundays on the golfing calendar.
He rolled in birdies at No 2, 6 and 7 and holed for birdie from the bunker at No 4 to find himself two shots clear of Watson with nine to play.
As so often happens, the tournament was decided on the incoming nine and when he’d taken the sand out of his eyes, Spieth signed for a level-par 72. Watson’s barnstorming finish for a 69 saw him with his second Green Jacket in three years, having out-duelled Louis Oosthuizen in a 2012 playoff.
As Spieth digested defeat – hardly an appropriate word for a golfer just 20 who had come perilously close to winning The Masters at his first attempt – he faced the world’s media. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘That was fun but at the same time it hurts right now. I didn’t come out on top but I can take a lot of positives away.’
Last year Spieth drove up Magnolia Lane full of youthful enthusiasm but fuelled by belief that he was destined for greatness. Here was someone, America agreed, who would not be ‘the next Tiger Woods’, but ‘the first Jordan Spieth’. The comparisons were understandable. He was twice a US Junior Amateur champion – joining Woods as the only multiple winner of that event. As a 16-year-old, Spieth tied for 16th in the Byron Nelson Championship, finishing higher than Woods ever did as an amateur in a PGA Tour event. In Spieth’s only year at the University of Texas, the Dallas native led the Longhorns to a national title, something Woods didn’t do at Stanford.
The Texan’s bandwagon hitched more fans as he trailed his away around the United States. ‘Jordan’s got it upstairs. He knows how to play golf,’ said Lee Trevino. ‘He’s a rare talent,’ reckoned Phil Mickelson. ‘I think he can be great,’ chipped in Woods, no less. ‘Jordan is my favourite player to watch,’added Paul Azinger. ‘I think he’s a superstar.’
In the buildup to the 2015 Masters, Spieth had climbed up the World Ranking, starting 2015 at ninth in the world, before victory in the Valspar Championship and two runner-up spots, at the Texas and Houston Opens, elevated him to fourth heading to Augusta National. What the world saw that week matched all the hype.
The cold facts are that Spieth trampled over records in his hurry to get something that money can’t buy: a Masters Green Jacket.
At a halfway total of 130, Spieth (64, 66) had broken the 36-hole aggregate Masters record score, previously held by Raymond Floyd, by one. He matched the finest Major championship tally over the same stretch. In the second round he didn’t drop a single shot and at 14 under par, held a five-stroke halfway lead over Charley Hoffman. ‘It’s cool,’ said Spieth in his unmistakeable Texan accent. ‘Any time you can set a record here is pretty awesome.’
That five-shot halfway lead was narrowed to four shots after 54 holes as England’s Justin Rose leapt out of the chasing pack with a 67, although that 54-hold total was also a Masters record. A final-round 70 – matched by Rose – saw Spieth wrap up his first Major by four shots; Mickelson’s late rattle of 69 saw him in a tie with Rose for second, while Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama finished impressively with 66s, although neither were remotely in line to catch Spieth for whom victory meant he improved to No 2 in the world.
Notably, Spieth’s 18-under-par total of 270 matched the course record, set by one Woods in 1997, when he’d beaten Tom Kite by 12 strokes in a procession. However, he would have surpassed Woods’ total had he not made bogey at the 72nd hole. And there you have it. Spieth and Woods, Woods and Spieth. History will forever pair them, like it has with Laurel and Hardy, Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, Starsky and Hutch.
Woods, now turned 40, went on to win another 13 Majors after that 1997 Masters triumph and has seemingly stopped there, besieged by injury and cruel luck, and unable to hunt down Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. Spieth, still only 22, added the US Open title to his Masters success and has time on his side, but – unlike Woods – has found himself in an era whereby he’s not alone at the top of the tree. McIlroy and the Australian Jason Day are both in Major territory and Rickie Fowler – who recently holed out at a par three to earn the Els for Autism charity $1-million – is surely a Major winner in waiting. There are others too, South Africa’s Branden Grace included, who have the game to win a Major on any given week, Augusta included.
Greatness is a word that seems likely to fit Spieth as snuggled as the Green Jacket. And it takes one great to recognise another potential candidate.
Gary Player, now 80, won three Masters himself – he competed in a record and scarcely believable 50 consecutive Masters tournaments – and was part of a golden generation that spawned a trip of himself, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
‘It’s great to see this wonderful new rivalry, it’s what the sport needs,’ said Player. ‘Professional golf has never been so healthy. I never thought I’d live to see $1-million prize money every week. These guys win more in two weeks than I did in my whole career – and that’s wonderful. I never thought I’d see players flying in with their private jets – and 10 minutes later the small planes land, carrying the caddies.
‘These days the pros and amateurs are playing two different games. Golf’s leaders tell me I’m talking nonsense. Well, if you think it’s the same game, go putt with Spieth or hit a drive with Woods. You’ll realise how different it is. In tennis they use two different balls, one for high altitude and one at low attitude. Golf needs similar action to cut the flight of the ball back by 50 yards. And it will happen, I just dunno when. I hope to live long enough to see it. We can’t go on, golf will become a joke.’
South Africa’s Sportsman of the 20th Century might have seen and done it all, but he enjoys surrounding himself with the energy of young people’s bodies and minds, and acknowledges that the ‘most impressive thing’ in golf he has seen is the evolution of achievements. ‘I won the Grand Slam [Masters, The Open, US Open, PGA Championship] at 29. I never thought that would be bettered but then Jack [Nicklaus] did it at 26. Then Tiger [Woods] came along and did it at 24 when most 24-year-olds haven’t even (itals) played (unitals) in a Grand Slam. And now Spieth is still only 22.’
Player is particularly gushing about the current world No 1. ‘Usually the man who putts the best wins a Major. Jordan Spieth is the best putter, but it’s not only his short game. People tell me Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson drive way past him, which supposedly means Spieth isn’t that long off the tee. What nonsense. You don’t win The Masters if you don’t hit it long, it’s so, so much longer than the Old Course at St Andrews for instance.’
‘A wise old Scot once coined the phrase, “you drive for show, you putt for dough”. That’s what I like about Spieth. McIlroy probably has a better golf swing than him, but Spieth is the better putter. ‘
Spieth therefore finds himself heading to Augusta as the 6-1 bookies’ favourite, followed by McIlroy at 7-1 and the recent two-time PGA Tour winner, Adam Scott at 10-1. Yet, expecting the Texan to pick up a second successive Masters is perhaps stretching things, not that it hasn’t been done before. In fact, three golfers have done so in the past 82 years. Nicklaus doubled up in 1965 and 1966 – interestingly, that second victory was achieved with a score of level par – while the others have been Nick Faldo in 1989 and 1990 and Woods, in 2001 and 2002.
Nicklaus went on to become the winner of the most Majors (18), while Woods is marooned on those 14, and Faldo picked up six in total, of which three were Green Jackets, with his five-shot win over Greg Norman in 1996 widely attributed to the Australian suffering from the biggest choke in golfing history.
So, the odds look stacked against Spieth, especially given that in the run-up to the Masters he has suffered a dip in form, whereas before his 2015 triumph he’d been red-hot. After coming back from the Singapore Open on the Asian Tour with a runner-up placing, the American finished in a tie for 21st at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, missed the cut at the Northern Open and ended in a tie for 17th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Spieth has often been regarded as a student of the history of golf and he is one of those players with a deep respect for previous generations who have trodden up and down fairways around the world. These days even Woods probably belongs to an earlier generation and the new(er) kid on the tee box has nothing but respect for the man he is ever more being compared with. ‘Tiger deserves a million thank you notes and a million cases of nice wine from every golfer who’s coming up and wants to play the PGA Tour as well as those that are already on the PGA Tour,’ he said. ‘He 100 percent deserves credit for doing what Arnie did in his day – Arnie and Jack. And taking it to the level it is today. He really doesn’t get the credit he deserves from us players. We all believe it. I don’t think we stress it enough to other people. How much we owe to Tiger and the greats before him.’
Yet, despite a legend like Gary Player feeling we’re on the cusp of another great rivalry Spieth is content to play down such talk. ‘It’s going to be a lot of fun, because I enjoy playing with both of them [Day and McIlroy], but I don’t think anyone’s buying into the “big three”,’ he said. ‘But yeah, we’ll have a good time.’
Going into this year’s Masters Spieth was predicting a tougher test. ‘The golf course looks very similar, it’s even in better shape before the event than it has been the past couple of years. But the greens were very, very quick and very healthy, so I’ve got a feeling they are not going to want 18 under to win again. I’ve got a feeling it might be playing a little more challenging this year.’
Indeed it is likely to be, although the 2016 Masters will not define Spieth. Last year he came within a handful of shots of winning all four Majors and it would surely be unrealistic to expect him to match his 2015 feats. The laid-back Texan is here to stay. Get used to that. There will be defeats and disappointments, but there will be many more victories and TV appearances. Simply sit back and appreciate this new era in golf.
DID YOU KNOW?
Spieth has a younger brother and a younger sister. His sister, Ellie, is autistic and he deems her as his inspiration.
Both Spieth’s parents played basketball growing up, but no one played golf. His mother bought him plastic clubs as a toddler to occupy him while she watched over his younger brother.
He favours an unconventional variation of the overlapping grip, and the position of his left arm through impact isn’t something in the coaching manual.
Spieth and girlfriend Annie Verret have been together since high school, growing up in Dallas.
Baseball was his sport of choice initially, but at age 13 he decided he needed to focus solely on his golf if he were to really reach his potential. ‘That was the hardest day of my life.’
He’s losing his hair. ‘There’s a reason I have a hairline like this. It’s stressful what we do.’
Spieth won the 2013 John Deere Classic, making him the first teenager to win on the PGA Tour in 82 years.