Last year was the summer of Spieth.
No player captured the hearts and imaginations of the golfing world more completely than a 21-year-old Texan in only his third full season on the PGA Tour. Jordan Spieth won The Masters and the U.S. Open, snatched away the No. 1 ranking from Rory McIlroy and capped off his season with the FedEx Cup championship.
If not for bogeying the 71st hole at the British Open—the treacherous Road Hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews—he might have become the first player to win the Grand Slam in 85 years. As it was, no one since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 had come so close.
Along the way, Spieth said all the right things on and off the golf course. He berated himself when he made a poor swing, but he did so in an engaging, competitive fashion. During post-round interviews he said “we” more often than a Frenchman. He was gracious and expressive, and he always credited his team and his family for his success. Following in the footsteps of the brusque, unapproachable Tiger Era, it was impossible not to embrace Spieth. His fellow competitors on tour have said that he is so mature beyond his years that his hairline couldn’t help but recede.
Clearly, Spieth is a breath of fresh air. He isn’t a swashbuckling, go-for-broke kind of player à la Phil Mickelson, Seve Ballesteros or Arnold Palmer. But he is must-see TV. His game is controlled, yet passionate. He is colorless, yet splashy. He doesn’t bomb it off the tee, but no one drains more critical putts. And the pressure of the moment only seems to make him tougher.
So, now what? Where does Jordan Spieth go in 2016? Can he follow up a season in which he pocketed more than $12 million in winnings and became the No. 1 name in the sport? Spieth knows it will all become more thorny as the spotlight shines brighter. He has said that he wished last season had never ended, but maybe it hasn’t. Or at least, the feeling hasn’t. He opened 2016 with a dominating win at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
He arrives at The Masters as the defending champion. He went wire-to-wire last April, with no other golfer threatening his lead on the final day. Last year, The Masters did not begin on the final nine holes on Sunday afternoon, as the cliché goes, it ended sometime on Friday. Spieth was that overpowering.
But history is working against him this spring. Only three golfers have won back-to-back green jackets—Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and the last to do it, Tiger Woods in 2002. There will be stiff competition. McIlroy is looking to reclaim the No. 1 ranking and complete the career Grand Slam. Jason Day proved last season that he should be in the conversation as the world’s best player. Augusta National is suited for Bubba Watson, who has won there twice since 2012. Rickie Fowler seems to be in contention every week, although he can’t seem to close. Adam Scott, the winner in 2013, re-emerged with back-to-back victories at the Honda Classic and Doral. There are a handful of other young guns talented enough to make Augusta their breakthrough week. And who knows what Phil Mickelson will do at his favorite tournament in the world?
Spieth will face much the same sort of odds at the year’s second major. No one has repeated at the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1989. The Open is being held this summer at historic Oakmont, which has produced a list of champions that doesn’t seem to fit any pattern. The greats like Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els won there, but so did Angel Cabrera and Larry Nelson. The common thread appears to be golfers who can manage their game and avoid big mistakes. That describes Spieth perfectly.
It’s difficult to envision Spieth coming close to duplicating his success of 2015. Then again, who would have imagined before last season that a 21-year-old could be so mature, balanced and wise? With Jordan Spieth, anything still seems possible.