Jordan Spieth’s bogey-free, 3rd-round 71 has him tied atop The Players Championship with Martin Kaymer going into Sunday, three clear of the peloton. It was Spieth’s third straight bogey-free round, a tremendous feat anywhere, but especially at TPC Sawgrass. Only Greg Norman’s imperial march in 1994 started in similar fashion. After Spieth’s near-miss his first time around Augusta National a month ago, he has himself positioned to possibly claim golf’s fifth major on his first try. At 20 years old.
Of what significance is his age?
Here’s the complete list of golfers who’ve won multiple times on Tour (post 1900) prior to their 21st birthday:
- Horton Smith (6 wins prior to turning 21 in 1929)
- Gene Sarazen (3 wins prior to turning 21 in 1923)
- Tiger Woods (2 wins prior to turning 21 in 1996)
If you’re scoring at home that’s two hall-of-famers and one G.O.A.T.. Spieth will have through July’s Open Championship to add his name to that esteemed list. Tomorrow represents Jordan’s latest and best chance to do so (although he did lose in a playoff at the Wyndham last year, but we’ll give him some slack as it came at the hands of top-five player in the world, Patrick Reed). However, it feels like the narrative has already shifted from embracing this incredible talent to wondering when he’s “finally” going to win a big-boy event.
We’re currently getting a sneak peak of the post-Tiger apocalypse world, where broadcasts, scribes and publishers are parched for compelling storylines. The overriding themes of 2014 involve poor television ratings, lackluster performances from guys trying to close-out tournaments, and knee-jerk ideas about how to spark growth in the game among an uninterested public. That’s what makes the under-reporting and under-appreciation around Jordan Spieth so perplexing. Except for the weekend at Augusta, Spieth’s dance with history has been largely an afterthought. He’s treated like any other top-10 player in the world not named Woods, Mickelson, or even McIlroy. The reaction seems to be “Good player, good results, but wait, when’s Tiger coming back again?” Here’s a sampling from one of the couple dozen editors over at Golf Digest:
— Luke Kerr-Dineen (@LukeKerrDineen) April 14, 2014
The establishment golf media should be hyping this guy to no end, embracing the Spieth cinderella/youth narrative ad nauseam! He’s the same player who was T7 after three rounds at the Byron Nelson as a 16 year-old, finishing T16, only to follow it with a T21 the next year. He’s the same guy who balled out in the Walker Cup, was named first team All-America, and finished Low-Am at the US Open at Olympic Club – all during his Freshman year in college. Since his game isn’t the flashiest and he isn’t otherworldly in any one area, it’s understandable that he wasn’t wholly distinguishable from some of his other standout peers (Patrick Cantlay comes to mind). Then he came out on tour, subsisting at first on sponsor’s exemptions and a couple of Web.com cameos, before gaining his card by way of six top-ten finishes and a win all while still a teenager. Then after he turned 20 in July, he lost in a playoff at the Wyndham and rolled that momentum into a tour de force “Playoffs” performance with a T19 at the Barclays, T4 at the Deutsche Bank (final round 62), T16 at the BMW, and T2 at the Tour Championship (final round 64).
Jordan Spieth is literally announcing his status as a generational talent week after week, and yet here I am having to ask the media to hype someone more. This is the knight in shining (under) armor everyone’s been so anxiously awaiting. Inside the ropes he’s demonstrative, emotional, and vocal, providing great theater throughout. After the round, he provides colorful quotes, possesses unfair intelligence and savvy for someone his age, and flashes personality at every opportunity. This is THE guy and too many people who should know better are missing the boat completely. Alan Shipnuck even makes it a point to put him in the ‘Zeroes’ section of his columns nearly every week (falsely highlighting Sunday struggles, when Saturdays have actually been what’s held him back from more wins). And while Shipnuck’s Saturday evening tweets displayed a much more nuanced view of Spieth, this overall lack of appreciation is endemic in the media ranks.
Did Big Cat desensitize us so much that we can’t relish and get excited by how incredible it is that a 20 year-old is in contention at golf’s biggest events week after week? Why hasn’t he moved beyond a feature in of the weeklies and graduated to the cover of Golf Digest and beyond (I guess the thinking there is that Paulina sells magazines, which I’d love to see the actual numbers on)? Where are the feature articles in Sports Illustrated about his fiery competitiveness? Why are we not hunting for what makes him, with eighteen great holes tomorrow, every bit the legitimate age-20 comparable to Tiger F***ing Woods? God knows Jordan Spieth is making his grand entrance against fields twice as deep as Tiger was. And while it’s unlikely that he’ll rival Tiger in the long-term, why can’t we celebrate the fact that that’s at least a possibility?
I’ll acknowledge certain factors in play here–Spieth’s not challenging racial barriers and stereotypes like Tiger did. He doesn’t boast a breathtaking competitive advantage (read: #decidedschematicadvantage) like Tiger had with his length and athleticism. He doesn’t have the cache or marketing chops of Rickie Fowler, and he’s following in the footsteps of a golf paragon, not blazing his own trail in his own time. Probably due in part to all these things, he’ll never push merchandise and magazines quite like Tiger did. But what he is doing, what he’s on the verge of accomplishing between the ropes at his age, at least suggests that he’s of the same ilk as Tiger or Jack, and may very well be the B.S.D. of his generation. And that’s something.
For once, seemingly, we have a situation where the hype around a young kid is warranted, though paradoxically, there isn’t all that much. Maybe Jordan Spieth is the antidote to the sans-Tiger malaise in which golf finds itself firmly entrenched.
Or maybe I’m just an unabashed ‘Spieliever’ (You’re damn right I just did that).