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.