From a phenomenal victory may spring an even better rivalry.
While Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods ate up all the column inches in the lead up to the 2015 Masters, it was twenty-one year old Jordan Spieth who left the undisputed champion, in just his second appearance at the revered tournament. You couldn’t say the precocious Texan had his first major wrapped up at the half way point – victory can almost never be presumed in a Major championship – but by reaching Friday evening on a record-breaking fourteen under par, the heavy lifting had been well and truly seen to. He was the picture of calm on Sunday, when admittedly no real charge came from the chasing pack, despite some early promise from Justin Rose. Indeed, the only real blip was a bogey on eighteen, which prevented Spieth from finishing on a record winning total of nineteen under par. Instead, he’ll share the record with Woods. You just know you’ve reached some rarefied air if you’re sharing a record with Tiger.
While Woods’ victory back in 1997 was in many ways more impressive and certainly had a wider sporting and cultural impact, it’s arguable that Spieth isn’t getting the credit he truly deserves. As stated here last week we thought the second year professional would perhaps be too inexperienced to carry the weight of expectation down the back nine on a Sunday of the Masters, as has been the case with many before him. However, Spieth circumvented any potential obstacles by cruising through the foundation laying of Thursday and Friday and, even after a little wobble on Saturday, entered the final day with a four-shot lead. Last year, the intangible pressures of Augusta and a charging Bubba Watson got to Spieth on the final day but on Sunday he navigated the last leg of his journey with, what seemed to the untrained eye, the calm and know-how of a fifteen year veteran.
The Dallas native did not arrive in professional golf with anything even remotely like the fanfare surrounding Tiger Woods or more recently Rory McIlroy and for various reasons we understand why. Even still, his two victories in the U.S. Junior Amateur Open (2009 and 2011) are matched only by the greatest of all time -in our opinion- Woods. Further, prior to Sunday’s victory he had already won a tournament in each of his first three seasons as a professional. He is now, after that man Woods, the second youngest ever winner of the Masters – the next two youngest winners at Augusta National are sporting icons Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus- and the first wire-to-wire (Thursday to Sunday leader) winner since Raymond Floyd in 1976. Call it hyperbole if you want but we think this guy has the potential to be anything.
Rory McIlroy, who himself finished with a career-best score of twelve under in Augusta, knew he was never going to have it his own way but he may not have anticipated Spieth’s remarkably swift evolution from talented novice to genuine threat to the Holywood man’s place at the top of the world rankings. McIlroy, at just twenty-five, is already, indisputably a true great of the game but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to a man who appears to be as unshakably self-confident as the four-time major winner himself.
What definitely sets McIlroy and Spieth apart are the Irishman’s incredible power and accuracy off the tee, compared to his younger counterpart’s comparative lack of length and unfortunate aversion to fairways. Spieth is almost peerless in one department though- putting. McIlroy has no weakness as such but on the occasions where he falls out of contention invariably it his putting which fails to reach the imperious standards he sets in all facets of the game. Spieth’s putting performance was not an anomaly either this past week. He ranks first in putting average on the PGA Tour this year. Interestingly however McIlroy is superior, at least in statistical measures in virtually every other area of the game. Nevertheless, while you can be as polished as you like, sometimes it’s the guy with the better endgame that walks away with the prize.
Spieth assuredly will improve as a player as indeed will the best player in the world, McIlroy. Already he has done at twenty-one what the endlessly talented Sergio Garcia will most probably never do- win a major. That said McIlroy will fancy his chances to land an immediate counter-punch on Spieth when the year’s next major, the U.S. Open tees up in the big bombers’ paradise of Chambers Bay, Washington.
This budding rivalry couldn’t have arrived at a better time for golf as worldwide television ratings have been steadily plummeting –mainly because of the absence of you know who– in recent years. McIlroy will hardly welcome ideas of this relative upstart taking his place at the top of the world. The quiet southerner and the more limelight-friendly northerner look set to go toe to toe for years to come: Nicklaus versus Palmer for the 21st century. McIlroy is still the master of all that he surveys, but he’d best watch his throne. Ladies and gentlemen, things just got interesting.