It's been an underwhelming season on the PGA Tour, but that was all supposed to change on Thursday at 8:12 a.m. ET when Tiger Woods returned alongside Jason Day and Jordan Spieth. It was the power group led by the biggest star and moneymaker the game has ever seen, coming back from a three-month hiatus at his own tournament. It jolted a sport that had sleepily trudged through the past three months and first two majors and it came suddenly -- sooner than expected. But by the weekend, all that remained from that marquee group at Congressional was Spieth, the 20-year-old who rocketed into widespread national prominence while Woods was away.
With Tiger unable to make the cut, the top draw for much of the weekend was Spieth, who was never even in it over his final 36 holes of the Quicken Loans National. But even with his tee time hours before the final pairings, the crowds still lined the ropes to see one of America's best young players. On Sunday, when he was a little closer to the lead, the gallery following him created traffic jams, and lined the ropes three and four rows deep at certain spots as he came down the back nine.
Spieth still seems to be adjusting to these crowds. The first two days, of course, they were all there to see Tiger and nothing matches a Tiger Woods gallery. Spieth handled the Thursday morning crowd well enough, but there were multiple instances over the final three rounds when he had to back off his ball. At the 9th hole on Friday, he yanked a relatively benign layup shot into the left rough. His caddie, Michael Greller, instantly waved over and pointed at the gallery down the right fairway, and Spieth gave a glance to the crowd before returning to his ball that was diving badly left. At the 18th on Saturday, he backed off again. That's one of the more intimidating approach shots on Tour, into a peninsula green surrounded by water. And the wind had changed significantly for the third round, but the backoff was more than uncertainty about club choice as Greller was again trying to signal to the crowd to calm and hush. Spieth had to back off his ball again on Sunday in a greenside sand trap at the 17th. The green was surrounded on all sides by hospitality suites and grandstands, and someone on the perch leaning over and hovering about 15 feet above his stance in the bunker had caused a disruption as he was about to blast out.
This all still has to be newer for Spieth, who's been a recognizable name in the sport since he made that run into contention as a 16-year-old at the Byron Nelson. That fleeting moment was backed up again the next year, and although it wasn't a T16 result, he still made the cut and finished T32 at the annual stop in Dallas. He was a star at Texas and as an amateur, especially playing with the best at the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic. But despite all that notoriety as a teenager and amateur, his profile has really only taken off in the past 12 months and he's now regarded as the best young American player and prospect. Winning as a teenager on the Tour for the first time over 80 years, contending until Sunday at the Open, making the Presidents Cup after a charge through the FedExCup, and then playing in the Sunday final pairing at both the Masters and Players Championship have all helped that.
We're also always searching for the next guy in sports, especially golf. Right now, it's Spieth and being still too young to drink legally, it will probably be him for awhile. There's never, ever, going to be a "next Tiger," a transformative tour de force. Spieth hasn't proven much, other than he can compete with the very best at the biggest events at a very young age. But the crowds and media are gravitating to the one-time PGA Tour winner that everyone wants to become the next great star in the sport.
Standing on the first tee on Thursday morning, it was hard to think Woods was the veteran who's been broken down for six years with all manner of injuries, and Spieth the young gun. Woods is three times his size in the arms, shoulders, and chest and looks like the intimidating pro you'd expect, while the first thing that strikes you when seeing Spieth up-close is just how ... insubstantial and average he appears physically. There's just not much to him and he's never dressed in a fancy or showy way that would smack you in the face and let you know this is someone who's a pro or famous. At the White House last Tuesday, he looked almost too young and normal to be an intern. On the course, the crowds following him everywhere are the only giveaway that this person is exceptional at something and from whom much is already expected.
When Spieth played with Tiger the first two days, the group had the usual three-man local police detail for added security around the increased crowds. Tiger went home but that security detail (two of three) stayed on with Spieth for the weekend.
And while the attention and crowds continue to build, it doesn't seem that the PR and branding machine has rounded Spieth into a vacuous golfing bot just yet, if for no other reason than he's just still so new and young. One officer assigned to Spieth's group went on about the 20-year-old being the "nicest guy" he'd encountered at the event and that he "signed everything" throughout the weekend. Spieth is regularly seen getting angry and frustrated at himself, and took some criticism for being too outward with his emotions in that Sunday final pairing at the Masters (a silly, dopey critique that the sport or Spieth don't need at the moment).
(last gif via Adam Sarson)
But while he's regularly angry at himself, he's avoided frosty run-ins with fans, media, and colleagues. After missing a birdie chance at the gettable par-5 16th, the same hole that had Tiger muttering to himself after also missing a red number, Spieth rolled through a tunnel of fans lining both sides of the ropes and high-fived everyone on his way to the 17th tee. That should be a very normal, expected human reaction but it doesn't happen with much regularity on Tour when a player is in the middle of his round. When he walked off the 18th with a par, his week in DC over, he was swarmed by mostly young kids yelling for every object detachable from his person. "Jordan, can I have your glove?" "Spieth, please give me your ball!" With kids lining ropes on both sides of him as he walked out, Spieth just decided to drop and bounce his golf ball on the cart path and let it roll whichever way to one lucky kid.
Rugrat hordes on both sides of ropes screaming for Spieth's ball as he walks off 18. Drops it in middle of cart path & lets fate choose side— Brendan Porath (@BrendanPorath) June 29, 2014
After the group of kids migrated from the 18th green to the clubhouse, where he said he would sign autographs after turning in his scorecard, one child was overheard saying "He dropped it and I went for the scoop but someone took out my legs." Spieth was inciting that kind of mania from the younger fans, and after turning in his card, he stood for 20 to 25 minutes and made his way through the entire barricade lined mostly with kids seeking autographs outside the clubhouse. They continued to ask him for everything he had -- "Jordan, you done with that hat?" Four sundressed females who looked to be their early 20s frantically chased and shadowed him down the barricade line, looking for autographs and/or photos until disappointedly running out of room as Spieth finished signing and turned into the clubhouse. Kids, girls, grown men, cops -- he was building a broad-based coalition without having won much yet.
There were three very serious-looking men in Under Armour apparel monitoring and talking to Spieth at different points as he dealt with the crowd. But he's still too young and green to have a ton of handlers and totally know how to "manage" his popularity and image. In his 1996 profile of Tiger Woods, Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith wrote about the ridiculous polished image and narrative that Tiger's handlers and his father were pushing to the media, and how he was up against the fame "machine." In the end, the machine won that battle. Spieth will never approach the fame of Woods regardless of how much he wins. He just isn't that type of transformative figure. But at the moment, he doesn't seem to have a large "team" around him and people working to maintain the brand. He's just a really popular young player who's playing some golf, hanging out, and signing autographs when asked.
In addition to always looking for who's next, we also try to categorize these guys in a Manichean way with very little information. The truth is, we have no idea who these guys are but we pigeonhole them as if we do. We have no idea who's a "good guy" or who is really an asshole. We never know and we never have enough to make informed judgments. But the fans and the media will push those narratives anyway.
Spieth seems like a pretty good dude who's learning to deal with his new profile, and it appeared at Congressional that he's still adjusting and figuring out how to play with all the larger crowds. This week, without ever really contending and backdooring his way into a T11 result, he played in front of the biggest crowds all four days. Some of those were with Tiger at his side, and some of those were after Tiger couldn't keep up and he became the show. And with the way things are building, he's going to keep encountering the crowds under both scenarios in the immediate future and probably way down the line when Tiger is long gone.