ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Although the FedEx series is about to launch the final installment of the PGA Tour’s longest ever season, with the major part of the schedule complete, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at the obvious Player of the Year and story of the year in golf, Jordan Spieth.
It used to be said that greatness in the game of golf came along roughly every ten years. Hogan was replaced with Palmer. Arnold gave way to Nicklaus, Watson came along to pick up the mantle from Nicklaus, and after a lengthy void, Tiger Woods dropped into the top slot.
Now that we are officially past the Tiger years, the question has been who the generational heir would be. Ireland’s Rory McIlroy laid early claim with his four majors by his mid twenties. And he may still turn out to be the answer. But 2015 has introduced another option in the now 22-year-old from Texas, Jordan Spieth.
The contrast between the two couldn’t be any more defined. In boxing terms it is the puncher versus the boxer. McIlroy, by most estimations, has more physical game, and Spieth, by an equal consensus, has more scoring ability.
Both accumulated precocious credentials at a very early age, although Spieth, with his American roots, draws more Tiger comparisons before age 20. Jordan like Tiger won the USGA Junior Title more than once. Professionally Spieth outdistanced Tiger in collecting his first Tour win, doing so just under 20 at John Deere in 2013, nearly a full year younger than Woods in Las Vegas in 1996.
Tiger’s win at Augusta gave him a slight age advantage over Spieth in collecting his first major, but going back-to-back gave Spieth the edge in picking up his second.
What makes the duel with McIlroy more interesting is my own belief that a golfer has a better chance of becoming a better player over time (McIlroy) than they have of gaining length over time (Spieth). In today’s world, most players acquire and demonstrate length in their teens and carry it into adulthood. You would look long and hard to find an elite player on the men’s side who gained significant length during their adult years. (Annika Sorenstam may be the only player to be the best in the world as one of the shortest and eventually longest players on their Tours.)
In that context, what Spieth accomplished in the four majors this season is all the more amazing. He came within four strokes of possibly completing the slam, and he did it with moderate length. The pairing with Jason Day in the final round of the PGA Championship put on display the challenge Spieth faces in swimming against the current of prerequisite length on the PGA Tour.
Some have suggested as he moves into his mid-20’S physical maturity might bring extra yards off the tee. Others in Spieth’s position have gone to the weight room route or swing changes to try to cut the distance deficit. My own quick glance at Spieth’s major numbers over the three summer events offers a less drastic route to leveling the playing field with his longer counterparts.
It starts with accuracy off the tee. It might come as a surprise to learn that through the two Opens and the PGA, Spieth was very erratic off the tee. At both Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits he hit fairways at a clip of two out of every three for the week. At St. Andrews that number was nearly 20 points higher.
Despite his directional inconsistency off the tee at the start and end of the summer he still hit greens at better than 70 percent at the US Open and PGA and above 80 at the Open. The correlation between driving accuracy and greens in regulation is locked into Spieth’s game. Without adding distance, he can ratchet up his performance from 2015 without changing his physical game by just improving his consistency from the teeing ground.
On and around the greens, the 22-year-old is already perhaps the best in the game off this short sample. On the poor surfaces at the US Open he averaged better than 30 putts per round. In Scotland he was again north of 30, with the figured skewed by a 37-putt eruption in the second round. In Wisconsin, with virtually the same number of greens hit as the US Open, his total putts for the week were a drastic 17 putts better, a more than four strokes a round improvement.
In management, preparation and decision making there are no numbers to trot out but again every knowledgeable observer of the game thinks that Spieth is not only beyond his years in excellence but already at a level reminiscent of Nicklaus.
As great as he has been in the start of his career, there is ample room for improvement for Jordan Spieth even if he never adds power to his repertoire of skills. And if the Spieth we see now becomes better without becoming ‘bigger,’ the way the game is taught and played today could see a shift in emphasis from the teeing ground to the scoring grounds, a place where everyday golfers always live their golfing lives.
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