The new golf legend

Jordan Spieth’s image as it appears on his Twitter account.

Much discussion is taking place after Jordan Spieth’s win in the British Open yesterday. (I’ll leave for another day discussion of the use of “British” in the name of the tournament.) It was a spectacular closing round, and without question it elevates Spieth’s stature in the game and provokes endless speculation about his future.  He has now won three majors at the age of 23, and yesterday’s win certainly would seem to rid him of demons from his meltdown in the final round of the 2016 Masters. He will compete next month in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. Should he win, he would be the youngest player in history to win the Grand Slam of golf.

Golf commentator Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner, had an interesting observation in an interview on ESPN Radio. He said that if you saw Spieth on a practice range with some of the other top golfers today, including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy, you wouldn’t think Spieth was the best. Spieth isn’t the strongest or the longest. And he will occasionally hit a real foul ball off the tee, as he did on No. 13 in the final round yesterday. But through the end of the British Open, Spieth is second in greens in regulation. He’s third on the PGA Tour in putting with an average of 1.710. That translates to wins. But time has a way of evening out our predictions and our perspectives. In 2014, when McIlroy won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championsionship, there was a lot of betting on the young phenom from Northern Ireland being the next great thing. He may yet be, but he’s been in a bit of a slump.

Part of the discussion now will naturally focus on majors. Jack Nicklaus won 18. Tiger Woods has 14, none since the train wreck of his personal life and marriage in 2009. It seems unlikely that Woods can ever add to that total. Spieth will almost certainly win more majors.  But I honestly don’t see Spieth getting close to Nicklaus, and perhaps even Woods. It’s difficult to explain my reasons, but it’s just a feeling. Predicting the next 10 to 15 years for any athlete is impossible. Certainly he would have to remain in good health and free of any significant injuries. And he would have to continue a strong focus and commitment to excellence, despite having extraordinary wealth that is a part of success in professional golf.

Spieth is also just a really good guy. He has a nice family history and knows how to behave, on and off the golf course. But he also lacks a certain flamboyance, and whether he can help the visibility of the sport and golf ratings on television over the long term remains to be seen. I just don’t see anyone dominating the sport as did Woods from 1997-2008.  That dominance helped produce interest and ratings. Even before Woods’ fall from public grace in 2009, he had a good image, and his aggressive play on the golf course, together with an extraordinary flair for the dramatic shot at the right time, helped the game and television ratings soar. That will never happen with Spieth. And while it shouldn’t create judgment about his standing in the game, we do tend to assess greatness in a way that isn’t completely data driven.

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