WINDERMERE, Fla. – I was interviewed on a radio show the other day – I’ll leave the host and station unmentioned because, frankly, it could have been any host on any station over the past few years – when the inevitable question about the game’s future was broached with stunning neglect.
“Will any of these young players ever step up and become superstars?”
After explaining that 25-year-old No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy is a superstar in every sense of the word and fellow 25-year-old Rickie Fowler is fresh off a year in which he claimed top-five finishes at every major, I brought up Jordan Spieth’s name. While there was no direct debate toward my assessment of him as an impending superstar, I could tell there was some blanching, as if somehow he hasn’t done enough to earn that designation.
He had an opportunity to win the Masters Tournament – and didn’t. He had a chance to win the Players Championship – and didn’t. He’s won just a single PGA Tour event so far. And so why, these criticisms suggest, should we believe he’s any different than so many other talented young players over the years?
That should be considered a narrowest of viewpoints on a long-term scenario.
The unspoken implication, of course, is the same that’s been saddled to every other young player with potential over the past two decades: He’s no Tiger Woods.
Well, guess what? Neither is anybody else.
That notion alone shouldn’t take away from what Spieth, at 21, has already become, nor what he can turn into in upcoming years.
To explain, let me take you back to New Year’s Day of this year.
Driving a golf cart across the sloping back nine of Kapalua’s Plantation Course, the mighty Pacific Ocean serving as a backdrop during a casual practice round, Spieth revealed three main goals for the upcoming 2014 calendar year.
1) Contend at a major championship.
Three months later, he accomplished this goal at the year’s first major, leading the Masters Tournament on Sunday afternoon before finishing in a share of second place behind champion Bubba Watson.
2) Make the Ryder Cup team.
He not only qualified for the biennial nerve-wracker, he teamed with fellow rookie Patrick Reed to form the United States’ most formidable duo on enemy turf at Gleneagles.
3) Win multiple events.
This one appeared like it would go unfulfilled until he lapped the field at last week’s Australian Open, giving him a chance – in his final start of the year at this week’s Hero World Challenge – to tick all the boxes on that New Year’s Day list.
“It is the best percentage chance I've had the whole year,” he joked Wednesday of the 18-player field.
During a year in which he’s been simultaneously commended for continually climbing leaderboards as a 21-year-old and criticized for failing to close while in contention on Sunday afternoons, Spieth heads into his final four competitive rounds with an opportunity to accomplish each of these stated goals.
All of which should serve as a reminder to those who are expecting – or at least craving – the next Tiger in the form of this easygoing Texan.
Unlike many of his observers, Spieth understands that his goals need to be stepping stones, each year’s list leading to greater heights.
“That's the main goal,” he insisted, “to improve each and every year a little bit, get a little better every year.”
This just in: Spieth is hardly the only player – young or old – to own that lofty yet shrewd goal of trying to get better with time. In fact, you’ll hardly find a pro golfer who doesn’t list this as his No. 1 intangible goal each year.
And that won’t change heading into the 2015 campaign, either.
Win or lose this week, whether he ticks that final box on the list or not, Spieth’s goals entering next year will include continuing improvement along with tangible ambitions taking the next step toward what could propel him into superstar status.
“Once we start getting into preparing for my first event of '15, that's when I will,” he said of making the next list. “Last year I went to my instructor’s [Cameron McCormick] house, and I had dinner with he and his family. He and I went up and sat down for an hour and a half or so and thought about what the right goals would be.
“Hopefully we can get together and maybe up the goals a little bit.”
This is how it starts, little by little, ticking all the boxes until the goals are reimagined, then ticking them again before upping the stakes. Even at 21, Spieth realizes he can’t earn that superstar designation immediately. It’s too bad not everyone can be so patient.