I realize that professional golf isn’t even a blip on the radar of most sports fans this time of year. Like most people, I was still trying to wrap my mind around the events of Wild Card weekend when the golf came on tv Sunday evening. However, I couldn’t help but realize that I was watching something special and significant on Sunday night, as Jordan Spieth held off all competitors to win the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Hawaii. The Tournament of Champions is the first event of the new PGA Tour season (technically, the fall series events following the Tour Championship count towards the 2016 FedEx Cup, even though they’re played in 2015, but we’ll ignore that for the moment. The TOC is the first event of the new calendar year, so it’s first for me). Every one of the 32 players that teed it up at Kapalua had won a PGA Tour event during 2015, so even though the field is tiny, it’s strong. Spieth still had to tend with Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka to win the silverware….the very same core group of golfers he will be competing against at this year’s major championships (notable absences from Kapalua included Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson, and Adam Scott). The Plantation Course isn’t exactly a great track, and no one would confuse it for a major championship venue. The fairways are wide and generous, and the greens are slow and severely sloped. It’s a fun reward for winning the prior year, and many of the guys competing (including Spieth) are just coming back from their holiday breaks away from the game. Still, Jordan Spieth shot 30 under par over 4 days. He won by 8 shots. It was the seventh PGA Tour win of Spieth’s career.
Jordan Spieth is still only 22 years old. Since 1970, the only other golfer to win seven Tour events before his 23rd birthday is (surprise, surprise) Tiger Woods. The day after his victory in Hawaii, Golf Digest reported that, for the first time in 13 years, Tiger Woods was supplanted at the top of the list of income earners in golf. Spieth leapfrogged both Tiger and Phil Mickelson by earning $53 million (!) in prize money, appearance fees, endorsements, and design projects in 2015. A day later, Spieth and Coca-Cola announced a lucrative new endorsement deal to go along with his deals with Under Armour, (and since this is professional golf) Rolex, and NetJets. Reports didn’t disclose financial figures for the Coke deal, but it was said to be on the same level as agreements struck with LeBron James and Taylor Swift. That’s good earning company. The win at the Tournament of Champions, viewed through the lens of Spieth’s spot at the top of both the world golf rankings and the total earnings list, coupled with his 2015 season (won the Masters, won the US Open, finished one shot out of a playoff at the British Open, runner-up at the PGA Championship, won the Tour Championship) got people asking the question no one expected we’d be seriously asking so soon: is Spieth “the next Tiger Woods?”
I don’t like that question. Comparing players across eras is fun, and it’s a natural thing to do when a new face challenges our idea of what greatness looks like, but it’s impossible. Even in an individual sport like golf, we’ll never really know who was “better” in their prime: Jack or Tiger. There are too many variables that pop up over time, and any conversation of who was “better” naturally becomes subjective and unanswerable. That’s why those conversations are fun. Spieth has a long way to go before the question is even fair. Tiger’s dominance over a decade was unlike anything the game had ever seen. For a little bit of perspective, let’s go back to that 7th Tour win for Spieth. When he lifted the trophy in Hawaii, it was his 7th Tour win in 77 career starts. Tiger picked up his 7th win in his 38th start. Spieth’s 2015 was the best major season (1st, 1st, 4th, 2nd) since Tiger in 2000. Tiger was 5th at the Masters, then won the last three. For good measure, Tiger won the 2001 Masters to become the first player in the modern era to hold all four majors at the same time. Spieth and Jason Day each won 5 events last year. Other than Tiger, no one had won five times in a single calendar year since Nick Price in 1994. Tiger has won AT LEAST 5 events in a year ten separate times. Ten!! Let’s let Jordan Spieth be the one and only Jordan Spieth, and over time, we can stack up where his accomplishments fit in with the best that have ever played.
2015 was the most entertaining year of major championships in my lifetime. 2016 has the potential to be even better. At the Masters, Spieth will defend his title, Day will look to win his second major in a row, and Rory will go for the career grand slam. The Masters is always the start of the golf season for the casual fan, and it sets up to be the most intriguing of recent memory. You won’t often hear me say this, but in this particular year, I’m already looking past the Masters, to the US Open.
Oakmont Country Club, just down the road from my home, will host its 9th US Open, more than any other course in the championship’s history. Oakmont is already the most difficult course in major championship golf, and the USGA (golf’s American governing body that hosts and sets up courses for the Open) is sure to make it as difficult as ever this June. The past two hosts, Pinehurst #2 and Chambers Bay, were unusual US Open venues. Pinehurst substituted sandy waste areas in the place of typical “US Open rough,” and Chambers Bay had wide fairways and greens that were not, to put it kindly, major quality. Oakmont’s bowling-lane-thin fairways, deep bunkers, thick rough, and lightning-fast greens will test every aspect of the best players in the world’s games.
I was texting with one of my golf buddies as we both were watching Spieth’s final round Sunday evening. I listed my early “top 5” for Oakmont. My list didn’t include Spieth. My argument was that Spieth’s relative lack of power, though exaggerated, would hurt him at Oakmont. If he missed fairways, he’d have trouble with the thick rough that favors more powerful players. I listed Rory, Day, Bubba, Reed, and Koepka as my favorites. He responded that I was excluding Spieth, “just to be different.” After a little more consideration, I realized he was right. There’s no way Jordan Spieth isn’t one of the top favorites in any event, at any course, anywhere in the world. The dude knows how to get a golf ball into the hole in fewer shots than everyone else, and that’s all that matters. When I make my official predictions the week of the US Open, Spieth will be in the top 5. After watching his performance in Hawaii, I wish I didn’t have to wait six months to make them.