Yesterday, Jordan Spieth of course won The Open Championship. He did it in awesome fashion, stumbling his way through the first 13 holes before playing the last 5 holes in 5-under to win by 3, the greatest closing 5-hole stretch in a major since we started tracking hole-by-hole 20 years ago.
Sad for Kuch but awesome for just about everyone else. Spieth now has 11 PGA Tour wins, 3 majors, and is 1 PGA Championship away from the career grand slam.
If he wins next month at Quail Hollow, he’ll be the youngest player in history to complete the slam. He’s on a very similar pace to Tiger in terms of wins and majors, based on age, although Tiger — at about the same age — would soon embark on the 1999-2001 tear that produced 22 Tour wins and 5 majors in what most consider the greatest stretch of golf ever played.
Everyone loves to focus on these comparisons, and it’s understandable why. We watch sports to witness greatness, and we want that greatness to have context in the game’s overall history. Whether it’s discussing the greatest NFL quarterback, or the greatest NBA dynasty, or the greatest Major League slugger, we need context to do so. These comparisons give us the context we desire. In this context, 23-year-old Jordan Spieth is among the most accomplished 23-year-olds in the history of golf.
What we often lose in these comparisons is the context of the era. Of the generation. Upon entering the scene, Tiger Woods was the only player like Tiger Woods. He was basically the first and only golfer treating professional golf like other elite athletes treated professional sports: he was lifting, running, talking about “reps,” wearing Nike. This put him in a category of his own and, when he delivered inside the ropes, that further solidified the boundaries separating that category.
Nowadays, most players treat golf like Tiger Woods treated golf. Spieth is one among many of those players, and that generational context has lumped him in with Rory, DJ, Day as the younger guys consistently high in the world golf rankings with major victories (DJ’s 33 but, historically speaking, he’s just reaching a golfer’s prime).
So what we’re looking for is separation. Since the end of Tiger’s reign as world no. 1 earlier this decade, we’ve had dozens of changes at the top. We’ve seen handfuls of guys make those “is he the next big thing?” runs (Rory 2014, Spieth 2015, Day 2015, DJ 2016 and again in 2017, Justin Thomas beginning 2017, Hideki Matsuyama beginning 2017). So where’s the separation?
The separation is Jordan Spieth. People love to theorize that, if all players are playing their best, Rory and DJ have the advantage over Spieth because of distance. Yes they hit it longer, and generally straighter, but Spieth separates himself by excelling at the most lethal combination of the game: iron play and putting.
Spieth is currently the best iron player on the planet (no. 1 on Tour in strokes gained on approach).
Although he’s currently T36th in strokes gained putting, we know how clutch he’s proven with the flat stick (plus, in 2016, he was 2nd on Tour in strokes gained putting; 9th the year prior).
When you hit the ball closer than everyone else and putt as well as anyone else — often better — you’re going to be tough to beat. He’s not a great driver of the ball but the 2 greatest players of the previous generation, Tiger and Phil, weren’t either.
Oh, and — as Brandel Chamblee reiterated on the Fore Play podcast last week — Spieth does Spieth things:
The 2013 John Deere Classic as a 19-year-old. He holed this to get into a playoff, ultimately earning his first win.
This year’s Travelers Championship.
72nd hole of the 2015 US Open.
Of course, yesterday.
And the entire final round of the 2015 Masters.
What I believe about the current crop of players and how the game’s best young guns stack up is this: Yes, the fields are more full of guys that can win any given week than they’ve ever been, but the number that can win major championships still remains relatively low. Spieth knows this and, when push comes to shove, it gives him that separation down the stretch… and will continue to do so.
What else helps him? At 23, he’s already suffered significant major championship heartbreak (collapsed at the 2016 Masters, finished runner up at the 2014 Masters, finished 1 shot out of the playoff at the 2015 Open, finished runner up at the 2015 PGA). He’s suffered what virtually every great player has had to suffer to ultimately acquire a full grip on what it takes to win (Jack finished runner up 19 total times; it took Phil’s 47th try to win a major). Spieth has continuously put himself in contention, learning both how to fail and how to succeed… and will continue to do so.
How good is Jordan Spieth? Really fucking good. In my opinion, the most promising major championship winner since Tiger.