CROMWELL, Conn. – Chasing ghosts.
That’s how Jordan Spieth described his game plan this week at the Travelers Championship. It’s the 23-year-old’s unique way of setting benchmarks when you find yourself sleeping on leads and winning tournaments in wire-to-wire fashion.
“Kind of chase a ghost which is normally the goal when you're in the lead is chasing score, that can be more challenging than chasing somebody else down,” Spieth said.
But beyond the immediate day-to-day goals, Spieth’s career at this early juncture could also be considered in the same context.
With his dramatic hole-out from a greenside bunker at the first extra hole at TPC River Highlands, Spieth moved into some historically elite company on Sunday.
Comparisons to Tiger Woods are always wildly unfair, if not patently unfounded. Most will tell you Woods’ career line is unrealistic even for the modern game’s best, but with his 10thPGA Tour victory on Sunday, Tiger is now the only competition for Spieth in at least one race.
Spieth’s overtime triumph over Daniel Berger made him just the second player to win 10 events before turning 24. Woods won 15 times before his 24th birthday, a mark that is out of Spieth’s reach since he turns 24 on July 27, but considering the company he’s keeping at this point in his career, it’s impressive nonetheless.
Spieth isn’t Tiger, but his performance at the Travelers Championship was unquestionably Tiger-esque.
“He’s going to hit it to 20 feet and make the putt. You know why?” asked Ryan Palmer as he watched the final dramatic moments. “Because Tiger would have made it.”
To be clear, Palmer – a regular practice round partner of Spieth’s and his partner earlier this year at the Zurich Classic – isn’t suggesting that Spieth is the next Tiger Woods. Nor is he insinuating that he’s destined for a similar career. But in the big moments, moments like Sunday at the Travelers, there is a quality that can only be compared to the 14-time major champion.
Spieth didn’t hit his approach to 20 feet at the 72nd hole as Palmer had predicted. Instead, he came up short from 115 yards in a greenside bunker and blasted out to 3 feet before making the par putt to finish at 12 under par.
The moment Palmer predicted came at the first extra hole against Berger after Spieth clipped a tree off the tee and ended up in the same bunker in two shots. This time, Spieth’s blast from the bunker dropped short of the hole, bounced once and trundled into the cup for an unlikely and dramatic birdie.
“He has that it factor,” Palmer said. “You watch the moments, he goes through struggles and he fights back. Not many guys can hit that shot out of the bunker [on the 72nd hole]. It was gutsy. The shot out [during the playoff] was destiny.”
It was the sixth playoff on Tour for Spieth and his fourth victory, an impressive clip made even more so by a game that wasn’t exactly perfect on Sunday.
After starting the day with a one-stroke lead, Spieth pulled away with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 1 and 2 and made the turn with a two-stroke advantage despite hitting just four fairways on the opening loop.
But Spieth bogeyed the 12th hole and added another at the 14th to drop into a tie with Berger. The two exchanged birdies at the 17th (Berger) and 15th (Spieth) holes to set the stage for the dramatic playoff.
But if the 2017 Travelers Championship is remembered for Spieth’s hole-out at the 73rd hole, the champion took solace in how he handled his emotions on a day when things weren’t exactly going his way.
“As we went from 15 to 16, and I could see Daniel, and I knew where I stood and I watched him kind of make that putt on 17, I would have been very pleased with my body language, which is very important,” said Spieth, who closed with a 70.
Berger, who began the day three strokes behind Spieth, could say the same thing after a final-round 67 that began with a bogey at his opening hole and an even-par opening loop.
As is almost always the case at this event, however, the closing nine produced plenty of dramatics - with birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 17 for Berger to force overtime.
“I played great today. I played the playoff hole great,” Berger said. “He hit an unbelievable bunker shot, and Jordan does Jordan things. So there's not really much you can say. I'm obviously disappointed, but happy to be in the position I was in today.”
As players huddled around the television in the TPC River Highlands locker room to watch the finish, there was an anticipation that harkened back to the Tiger era.
“Wouldn't be surprised if [Spieth] just holed this bunker shot,” Justin Thomas tweeted moments before the game winner; and Boo Weekley, who began the day a stroke behind Spieth and paired with him in the day’s final group, watched in stunned silence.
“He holed out?” Weekley asked. When reminded that Spieth nearly did the same thing on the 72nd hole, Weekley frowned, “I know, I was there.”
Spieth isn’t Tiger Woods, but he can certainly create a moment to remember much like the guy in the red shirt.