KAPALUA, Hawaii – As one player spoke with a gaggle of reporters following his round on Friday, a celebration erupted from the ninth green just down the hill at Kapalua.
“That’s the boy,” the player mused with a healthy dose of awe.
“The boy” was Jordan Spieth, the PGA Tour’s 22-year-old wunderkind who continues to surprise despite a resume that already includes two major bottle caps and a half dozen victories. His eagle at the par-5 ninth on Friday vaulted him into a commanding lead at the 2016 lid lifter and he’s really not looked back since.
The boy wonder set out on a windswept Saturday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions with four-stroke advantage and picked up three consecutive birdies starting at the fourth before dropping his first shot of 2016, a bogey that was the result of a wicked bounce in a bunker on No. 8.
“I started out the day with just kind of an off range session. I wasn't feeling great,” said Spieth, who closed with a 65 for a 25 under total. “[Nos.] 8 through 11 was a tough stretch for me striking the ball. But we still played those holes 1 over when it could have been worse. We made up for it.”
But even when Spieth gives the field a glimmer of hope it’s starting to feel like borrowed time.
Following his bogey at No. 8, Spieth also failed to birdie the par-5 ninth and Brooks Koepka picked up two shots with birdies at the 14th and 15th holes to cut the lead to one shot.
Spieth’s answer was quick and undeniably clear, a birdie putt at No. 12 from Oahu (actually it was 46 feet) that dropped with a sheepish grin and innocent shrug followed by two more birdies at Nos. 14 and 15.
Despite a charging effort from Koepka, who posted with a 10-under 63 in the week’s toughest conditions, Spieth maintained a healthy advantage to fuel his burgeoning aura.
Comparisons with Tiger Woods and his dominance have all turned out to be wildly unfounded. There have been Tiger-like performances in recent years (see McIlroy, Rory 2014) and Tiger-ish seasons (Spieth 2015), but sustained preeminence is hard.
Spieth’s last 10 months, however, demand comparisons to Woods at his best, no matter how unfair they seem.
Since winning last year’s Valspar Championship in March he has five Tour victories, including career-defining triumphs at the Masters and U.S. Open.
Along the way he added five runner-up finishes and a FedEx Cup title. By any definition, that is Tiger-like.
It’s etched into the leaderboard and the faces of his frat brothers every time he converts a crucial putt, like his 9-footer for eagle at the last to close his round on Saturday for a five-stroke advantage.
“I know what it feels like to be Jordan Spieth now, I guess, shooting 10 under every round,” Koepka laughed.
Spieth’s name atop a leaderboard may not be worth a half a stroke a side like some say it was for Woods once upon a time, but there is no denying that his continued excellence is starting to inch its way into the collective psyche.
“I tell you what, you can't make a lot of mistakes,” said Brandt Snedeker, whose 65 on Saturday was his best card in 14 trips around the Plantation Course but still left him nine shots back.
“I played a couple practice rounds with him this week and he just hits so many quality golf shots. And when he doesn't, his short game is so good he doesn't make any bogeys.”
Whether this is the new normal remains to be seen, and to be historically accurate Woods achieved his status after a decade of stellar play, but three rounds into the new year it’s hard to see any weaknesses or blind spots in Spieth’s game.
Spieth plays to his strengths, avoids the big miss and though he might not make every putt he steps to, he certainly holes the ones that matter.
He’s won on fescue greens (U.S. Open), bent (Masters) and Bermuda grass (Tour Championship), and seems to play better when the conditions are most demanding.
Although he’s far too modest to ever admit it, he seems to sense his building mystique among the rank and file.
“When Tiger’s in contention, why is his record so phenomenal? Well, sure, he played the best golf and he was the strongest mentally, but everyone else knew that he could do it and maybe tried to do a bit too much and then they're out of their own sync,” said Spieth, who has now led or been in second place after all seven rounds he’s played at the Tournament of Champions.
“In no way, shape, or form am I comparing where I'm at to what he's done, but I think that any time someone continues to win or close a deal, it just starts to put it in your head.”
With a Houdini short game and a putting stroke that travels, Spieth has emerged as a singular talent. Whether he’s bound for the heights that Woods reached depends on what transpires over the next decade or so, but he’s certainly headed down a familiar road.