Jordan Spieth Rises to the Top of the Golf World at PGA

August 17, 2015

HAVEN, Wis. — It was Jason’s Day, but it is Jordan’s world.

Now the golf world knows the secret formula of how to beat Jordan Spieth. All you have to do is shoot the lowest score in major championship history. Seriously, how hard can that be?

“This is as easy a loss as I’ve ever had because I felt I couldn’t do much about it,” Spieth said after finishing three shots behind Day at the 97th PGA, making a claim that may be overstated but nonetheless meant in the vein of good sportsmanship. “Jason was just that good.”

After this loss, the same is true of Spieth. He won two majors, missed being in a playoff for a third and here, pushed Day to the finish. Day became the first player to reach 20 under par in a major championship because with Spieth chasing, he had to get there if he expected to win.

We now know something we didn’t have an inkling of a year ago. Jordan Spieth is just that good.

His PGA runner-up finish wasn’t just worth a stunning $1.08 million (no, that is not a typographical error!), it made what we had already deduced official: Spieth is the best player in the world, and the former No. 1, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, will have to play some outstanding golf to get the top spot back.

It was one of Spieth’s goals, along with winning a major and making the cut in all four majors. In retrospect, he aimed low. Winning a major turned out to be just low-hanging fruit for Spieth. Making the cut in four majors? How about almost winning all of them.

The year began as a vehicle for McIlroy’s dominant era. The only bigger surprise than McIlroy being a non-factor was Spieth turning into some kind of 22-year-old Ben Hogan. No one saw it coming, but Spieth is No. 1 now. Mission accomplished.

“I accomplished one of my life-long goals,” Spieth said. “That will never be taken away from me now. When I look back on this year, the consistency that we had and being able to step it up on the biggest stages, that’s a huge confidence builder. It’s what allowed us as a team to become No. 1 and, I believe right now, the best in the world. Well, second-best behind Jason Day this week.”

Spieth’s official ascension to the throne is almost as big as Day’s breakthrough major championship. One stirring victory often leads to outrageous predictions because, obviously, the winner always looks great after playing his best golf. “The floodgates are bound to open now,” is the most common phrase, but in the case of Day, it seems legit, since he has held or shared the 54-hole lead in the last three majors.

But consider this: golf already looked as if it was in a great place with the wish-upon-a-star rivalry between Spieth and McIlroy. It didn’t materialize this week, but the best part about it is it invigorates the game on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe roots for young Rory (who is popular in America) and the United States roots for young Jordan (who is well-liked overseas). On the surface, that could be nearly as good as our previous rivalry, Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson.

Let’s add young Jason to the equation. Now we’ve got another continent – Australia – involved with a rooting interest. Are Day, Spieth and McIlroy going to start fighting for majors between them for the next decade? Could we be that lucky?

Because if we are, maybe instead of a new-age rivalry we’ve got a new-age Big Three of Golf. I’m not saying these guys are Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. I’m not even saying they’re Tiger and Phil. I’m just saying they could be very big for generating greater global interest in the game.

One PGA title doesn’t make Day an irresistible force or an immovable object but hey, that Big Three possibility is pretty gosh-darn tantalizing, as Spieth might say.

A runner-up finish here doesn’t change the fact that this is The Year Of Jordan Spieth. He’s got four wins, two of them majors, and he’s cleared $10 million in winnings so far, with the FedEx Cup and it’s $10 million bonus still up for grabs.

“Yeah, it’s been a very, very good year,” Spieth said, almost giggling before he could finish that understated sentence. “You can look at it as if I was four shots shy of the Grand Slam or you could say where with one putt, I would have only one major this year — if Dustin Johnson’s putt goes in at the U.S. Open.

“It was amazing. You only get four chances a year and to have an opportunity to win all of them is so cool. I hope that we can do this again.”

Seasons like this, performances like this, are exceedingly rare. Hogan won the first three majors in 1953, but because he had to travel by ship, he couldn’t get back from the British Open in time to play the PGA Championship. Tiger won three majors in one year during his Tiger Slam period.

What Spieth did this year, at 22, is hard to compare to anything else we’ve seen in modern golf. It almost feels like a letdown that he won “only” two majors.

His greatest contribution may be in putting a focus on a different aspect of golf. We’ve been loving the long ball for decades. The most popular instruction stories are about How to Hit It Longer. The dominant golfers of our lives have been big hitters since the days of Hogan. Palmer, Nicklaus. Watson, to a lesser extent. Seve Ballesteros. Greg Norman. Tiger and Phil. Nick Faldo had a nice run but was he ever truly a dominant player? Fans respond to big hitters, such as Fred Couples, Davis Love and John Daly.

Here comes Spieth. He’s not a short hitter by any means. He’s a little longer than medium, but he’s not long. He is dominating the game with his wedge play, his chipping and pitching around the greens and his putting. We’ve never seen anyone hole out from off the green so often and more impressively. We’ve never seen a golfer hit it stony — inside two feet, kick-in length — with such regularity.

The secret of golf is never making bogeys, and when Spieth scrambles for par from off the green, he usually does it with a stress-free tap-in, not a worrisome six-footer. The putting? He’s already on a par with Ben Crenshaw or Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Like Jack and Tiger, the bigger the putt, the more likely Spieth is to make it.

You’re not going to see instruction articles like, How To Chip Like Spieth. Because the answer is, spend six hours a day chipping for the next two years. Ditto for his putting. You can’t replicate it. You’re not Jordan Spieth, and you never will be. Remember how Tiger raised the bar on Tour for fitness? Because he was so buff, most other players trying to compete with him decided they needed to get stronger, too.

Spieth has raised the bar on major preparation. Nicklaus did it once before. He’d go play a major site a week or two early and spend two, three or four days there. He’d play one ball and try to shoot a low score. He also wanted to get used to playing, say, Baltusrol, so when he came back he wouldn’t feel like he was in a U.S. Open, he was just playing Baltusrol again. And he’d be confident because he’d already shot 65 there.

When Spieth holed out from the front bunker to finish his round at Whistling Straits in the second round, it was a key shot. It got him back into contention after a rugged opening round. He made it because he knew, after talking to the regular working-stiff caddies who ply their trade there all summer, that the front bunker at 18 always has more sand than the other bunkers.

Spieth and his own caddie, Michael Greller, collect local knowledge like kids collect baseball cards, so if you want to beat Spieth, you’re going to have to try to outwork him, too.

Day outplayed him with a historic performance. Spieth’s performance this year was historic, too. You should file the 2015 golf year away in your memory bank. Sure, Spieth and McIlroy and Day are young and there are great things ahead but honestly, you may not see another performance like Spieth’s this year for a long, long time.

This is Jordan Spieth’s world right now. Consider yourself lucky to watch it.

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