Anticipate Spieth's future, and enjoy the present

By John FeinsteinApril 14, 2015, 4:25 pm

In today's jock world, the question that is asked of athletes is never, “What have you done for me in the past?” It isn't even, “What have you done for me today?” It is almost always, “what can you do for me tomorrow?” 

That might explain why, within minutes of Jordan Spieth tapping in his final putt to win the Masters by four shots over Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson, almost everyone was becoming breathless about what Spieth might do next. 

Oh sure, there were a million or so words spent on Spieth's remarkable week, during which he deconstructed Augusta National as if it was the TPC River Highlands by shooting a mind-blowing 64-66 the first two days and then cruising to a record-tying 18-under 270 for the week. 

Spieth is 21 – the same age Tiger Woods was when he shot an identical 270 (on a much shorter, but not as soft golf course) 18 years ago. His victory puts him in an elite group of pre-23-year-old major winners that, in addition to Woods, includes names like Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Rory McIlroy, Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros. That's remarkable company to be keeping. 

Which is why the focus on Sunday evening wasn't on what everyone had just witnessed, but on what we might witness in the future. Spieth is now firmly established as The Next One, maybe The Current One, among American players and as the player who should be Rory McIlroy's great rival for the next 15 or so years. There's plenty of evidence that this is the case, but golf is often not as predictable as it appears to be. Sixteen years ago, when a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia finished second to a 23-year-old Woods at the PGA, we all knew that they would be the great rivalry of the early 21st-century. It never came to pass. 

Like Woods and Garcia, McIlroy and Spieth are four years apart in age. There are several differences. When Garcia was 19, he had a boyish charm that everyone latched on to – thus, the El Nino nickname. Woods was the golf savant, driven by history and his father and, as we later learned, demons that churned inside him. Woods left us gasping; Garcia left us grinning. 

McIlroy couldn't be more different than Woods and Spieth couldn't be more different than Garcia. Maybe that's why the rivalry will come to fruition this time. 

McIlroy has a temper (see Honda Classic 2013 and WGC-Cadillac 2015) but he also clearly enjoys the spotlight, doesn't see a loss as the end of the world (see, Augusta 2011) and has no issues with the pressures that come with being the No. 1 player in the world. There's still a lot of kid in him, a few weeks shy of 26. 

Spieth is like McIlroy in that he too has a temper and that he doesn't shy away from the crucible. He feels the pressure – his comment about his hairline Sunday evening was telling – but he deals with it with a poker face and remarkable composure – except when his golf ball is in the air. His conversations with his airborne ball are about the most entertaining thing going in golf right now. 

But there's nothing boyish about Spieth. When he opens his mouth you think you're listening to a 35-year-old. Some guys say the right thing because they're coached to or because they're thinking about keeping their sponsors happy. Spieth does it naturally, as if he was born to be in the public eye. 

Often, when an athlete faces adversity, the media makes it into much more than it is. In the case of Spieth, there's little doubt that his 14-year-old sister Ellie, who is autistic, has played a major role in shaping him. Spieth isn't just a loving big brother, he's spent time volunteering at Ellie's school, which is for special-needs kids. Clearly, being exposed to kids who have issues that go well beyond a missed par putt or a duck hook, has given Spieth a perspective a lot of coddled young athletes don't have. It may also account, at least in part, for his remarkable maturity. 

McIlroy-Spieth has everything a great rivalry needs: Two gifted young players with different but engaging personalities. It doesn't hurt that they should be on opposing Ryder Cup teams for years to come. Imagine the possibility of McIlroy-Spieth playing a singles match someday with the Ryder Cup at stake. THAT would be dramatic. 

Before all of that happens – or even if it doesn't happen – it's worth savoring the past week. Spieth was brilliant, putting on arguably the most memorable performance seen at Augusta since Woods first took the golf world by storm with his matchless play back when Spieth was 3 years old. 

There was more, though, than Spieth. Ben Crenshaw's farewell could have turned embarrassing but the devotion of everyone in golf to him and to his gentle (thus the nickname) spirit made 91-85 almost disappear. Crenshaw's Friday round was reminiscent of Arnold Palmer's last U.S. Open round at Oakmont in 1994. Palmer shot 81 that day but no one cared. Afterwards, he sat on a bench in front of his locker and said, "Any other sport I'd have been booed for the way I performed today. How lucky am I to play golf?" 

Crenshaw no doubt felt the same way when he said, "I feel like I won the tournament," after his emotional walk up 18 and the long, tearful hug with Carl Jackson, his caddie at Augusta for almost 40 years. Jackson is battling cancer and couldn't be on the bag, but he was there, in his white jumpsuit to greet Crenshaw at the finish. That was the chill moment of the week. 

There was also good news for the game's two elder statesmen. Mickelson played, by far, his best golf since last year's PGA and Woods was able to shed the chipping yips to finish a respectable 17th. Any notion drummed up pre-tournament that there was somehow a “new” Tiger went away as soon as he launched his first tee shot on Thursday and went into full game-face mode: the angry glares at missed putts; the profanity directed at an awful tee shot on Saturday; the pabulum answers to questions post-round – all vintage Woods. Which, if you want to believe he's got another major victory in him, was a good sign. 

In the end, though, the week was about a prodigy blossoming into a genuine star. If Spieth decides to retire from golf next week to join the Peace Corps, he will have left his mark on the sport forever. 

Of course he'll be at Hilton Head this week and, presumably, on major leaderboards for years to come. That though is for the future. For now, it's worth taking a step back and marveling at what he accomplished during four extraordinary days in April 2015 in Augusta, Ga. The future can wait. 

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”