Who's the best? Who knows? But Spieth gets it done


SOUTHPORT, England – It’s the Great Barroom Debate of this era: Who would win if the top players in the world all were at their best?

For the past few years, the default answer has been Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy, who possess the usual hallmarks of dominance, but it’s time to reassess.

Because what good is all that firepower if they can’t access their potential as consistently as Jordan Spieth?

Since 2015, Spieth has led after 14 rounds in a major. That’s twice as many as Johnson, the world No. 1, and 13 more than McIlroy, whose four major titles (including two eight-shot romps) are the most in this generation.

And that’s only recent context. Through 70 career major rounds played, Spieth has spent more time atop the leaderboard than both Tiger Woods (seven) and Jack Nicklaus (four). Spieth becomes visibly uncomfortable when those comparisons are mentioned, because they’re premature, but they’re still facts. At 23, and now a three-time major champion, he is historically great.

“What those guys have done has transcended the sport,” Spieth said Sunday night at Royal Birkdale, “and in no way, shape or form do I think I’m anywhere near that, whatsoever. So it’s a good start, but there is a long way to go.”

Every player summoned to the media tent early last week was asked the same question, about the string of seven consecutive first-time major winners (the second-longest streak since 1934) and how so little now separates the game’s top tier, thanks to advancements in fitness, technology and coaching. The margins have never been smaller, and yet it is Spieth – the sublime iron player, the demoralizing putter, the on-course tactician – who continuously maximizes his potential, even without awe-inspiring physical gifts.

“Those four or five guys, they never cease to amaze me,” Zach Johnson said. “I’m not going to say they’re Tiger Woods, because they’re not – that’s the best athlete golfer I’ve ever witnessed. But they have some of those intangibles.

“You see it with Jordan. It’s not like Jordan is out there obliterating the golf course with power. But his short game is a joke.”

Unlike DJ or Rory, some aspects of Spieth’s brilliance are difficult to quantify – the clutch gene comes to mind – but his success is a credit to his preparation at home, his on-site homework with swing coach Cameron McCormick and caddie Michael Greller, and also his in-game instincts.

Again and again this shows up, the reason why Spieth has earned trophies anywhere and everywhere. He has won on Bermuda grass and fescue. He has won on the most perfectly manicured course in the world and a burned-out moonscape. He has won in Sydney and Silvis, in Cromwell and Kapalua, in Tampa and his home state of Texas.

Spieth has won shootouts and dogfights, by margins wide and small, from behind and as a frontrunner … and so there was no panic Sunday, no here-we-go-again dread when he twice lost a multiple-shot lead during a bizarre and thrilling final round at The Open.

“We’ve only been out here five years,” Greller said, “but he’s been in enough big-time situations with the greatest pressure to know to slow down.”

And if that meant taking 22 minutes to size up his third shot on the par-4 13th hole, so be it. Spieth apologized to his playing partner, the unfailingly polite Matt Kuchar, for the lengthy delay, then bulldozed him over the closing stretch, going birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to steal the claret jug.

“The Jordan of usual,” Justin Thomas said.

Indeed, all Spieth does is grind, and score, and win – the first player with double-digit PGA Tour wins and three major titles before the age of 24. (His birthday is Thursday.) In an era of titanium-denting machines, Spieth has emerged as the best American player of the post-Tiger era, and it’s not particularly close.

Other players may have a higher ceiling, more swagger, more head-turning firepower.

But someday Spieth will have what they all desire.

The best résumé.