The answer man: Spieth responds to every challenge


KAPALUA, Hawaii – Some considered Jordan Spieth’s performance along this stretch of the Maui coast a referendum on where his game, and by extension golf, is right now; but considering the PGA Tour is still a few stops shy of the quarter pole this season it felt more like a competitive Q&A.

After all, as dominant as Spieth was in 2015 he hadn’t exactly proven himself a specialist on fast tracks like Kapalua, where even-par rounds will leave a player dusted.

Spieth suggested as much on the eve of his victory lap at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions when he was asked to assess his position after starting his week with rounds of 66-64-65.

“To be honest, with the scoring we have done this week, it frustrates me that I have to shoot 4 to 6 under in order to win this tournament still,” he said.

But if there was any question as to whether Spieth had the firepower to win a shootout, the answer arrived early and often, with the world No. 1 responding to every challenge to his dominance on Sunday at the Plantation Course.

Question: How will Spieth respond after Patrick Reed, who began the day a half-dozen behind Spieth, starts his round with back-to-back birdies to cut the lead to four?

Answer: Spieth, being Spieth, rolls in a delicate 35-footer for birdie from above the hole at the second.

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Question: How will Spieth respond when Reed, who went 68 holes this week without a bogey, adds a 5-footer for birdie at the fifth?

Answer: Spieth converts from 2 feet for birdie at the sixth to retain his five-shot advantage.

Eventually, the biggest and most crucial inquiries for Spieth may have come from within.

Question: What will he do after a bogey at the eighth hole, Spieth’s second dropped shot of the week, combined with Reed’s birdie at the ninth hole cuts the lead to three strokes?

Answer: Spieth birdies the turn with mid-range putts at the ninth and 10th holes to reestablish a five-shot advantage.

By the time he’d birdied the 15th hole only history could be counted as a true competitor, with the tournament-record 31-under mark within reach.

Spieth likes goals, they keep a creative mind on point, and penciling in Ernie Els’ record total from the 2003 Tournament of Champions is the type of competitive carrot that can dominate the internal dialogue.

“I was peeking at the boards here and there but knew that if we stuck to our goal of getting to 6 [under], ultimately I wanted to get to 30 under,” said Spieth, who came up just short of the tournament record with a closing-round 67 but reached 30 under for an eight-stroke victory.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of other accolades to be processed following a commanding performance in Maui.

The victory made Spieth the third-youngest player, behind Tiger Woods in 1998 and Horton Smith in 1929, to get to seven victories on Tour, and he became the first player since Woods in 2000 to win the last event of one season (Tour Championship) and the first stop the following year.

On a personal front, his eight-shot triumph was Spieth’s largest margin of victory in an official-money Tour event and his first triumph on the Tour’s West Coast swing.

But most importantly Spieth answered the inevitable question that came with the New Year – how could he possibly match his performance in 2015?

“[Caddie Michael Greller] said on 18 fairway, ‘Man, just a way to make a statement.’” Spieth said. “I thought that was cool. I mean, it's not what I'm going for, it's not why I do what I do. I still think it's going to be very difficult to have a year like last year.”

Following his Kapalua rout the conversation is also sure to turn to comparisons between Spieth’s current play and Woods’ at a similar age.

At the risk of breaking the internet, Butch Harmon, who was Woods’ swing coach from 1996 to August 2002, should be considered the ultimate arbiter on this subject.

“It’s not unfair to compare Jordan with Tiger because Jordan is doing exactly what Tiger did at the same age,” said Harmon, who enjoyed a 26 percent winning clip in Tour starts and eight major victories while working with Woods.

Spieth, however, is quick to deflect such comparisons.

“I just think it's premature, but I'll say that probably my entire career,” Spieth said. “There's just such an age gap that I understand these comparisons are going to be there. I hope they continue to be there - that means I'm still being in the same ballpark as he is. I know what he did and I just find it hard to believe that it can be matched.”

The 22-year-old certainly has a head for history and a head-to-head comparison between Spieth and Woods at similar points in their careers is clear enough. This week’s Tournament of Champions was Spieth’s 77th Tour start as a professional and his seventh victory. Through 77 starts as a member of the play-for-pay set Woods had won 18 times on Tour.

But Harmon’s assessment is more nuanced and takes an a la carte approach.

“The biggest difference, and this is a huge difference, is Tiger’s ability and length off the tee,” Harmon said. “Go back to 2000, he was the second-longest hitter in the game and he hit 72 percent of his fairways. He was really hard to beat because of that.”

In Woods’ third full year on Tour (1999) he ranked third in driving distance, 65th in driving accuracy and fifth in greens in regulation; compared to Spieth’s line last year of 78th in driving distance, 80th in driving accuracy and 49th in greens in regulation.

Where Spieth holds the edge at this point in their careers is on the greens, with Woods 24th in putting average and 58th in three-putt avoidance in ’99, compared to Spieth’s 2015 line of first in putting average and 37th in three-putt avoidance.

“I never thought I’d see anyone who can make as many pressure putts as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did,” Harmon said. “But Jordan Spieth is definitely right there. Jordan makes more long putts than anyone we’ve seen in a long time with the exception of Arnold Palmer.”

Founded or not, the comparisons will continue if Spieth continues to trend down his current path, which prompts an entirely different exchange.

Question: Can Spieth maintain this level of excellence long enough to make it a true comparison, at least in his own eyes, to Woods’ dominance?

Answer: TBD.