Imagine being 21 years old and consistently playing golf with people who hit the ball 20, 30, 40 and sometimes 50 yards past you. This is what Jordan Spieth encounters when he tees it up.
Golf, especially professional golf, is now sold and marketed as a game of power. The big hitters get the most press. Analysts fawn over driving distances and the bombers get the large proportion of the coverage. There are "landing zone" grid graphics in the fairway of many PGA Tour telecasts. The weekend hacks are bombarded with advertorial messages on how this club will add this much clubhead speed and this much loft for this much distance. The same keywords -- speed, power, distance, rip it, bomb it, unleash -- fill all the commercials, which are always for drivers. You don't see many, if any, commercials for a sand wedge or an iron set. The faces pushed on the broadcasts and in these ads are invariably the guys who poke it 320 yards. It's obviously what us weekend hackers want to watch and to buy for ourselves or else it wouldn't be marketed so much.
And this is the best route to success in modern professional golf. The players who hit it farther have an advantage. Golf analytics, which are becoming a bigger part of the game each year, bear this out. At the Masters specifically, driving distance is always touted as one of the keys, if not requisites, to winning a green jacket. Most recent major winners, such as Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, are all hailed for the way they hammer it off the tee. We now often equate the word "talent" with how far a guy crushes it, especially when rating the young players and prospects.
Spieth is maybe the best young talent (we can no longer call him a prospect), but his driving distance usually falls somewhere in the 50s or 60s on the PGA Tour. The names around him in the rankings are (not to be unkind) much of the chaff of the PGA Tour. They're not in their early-20s or major winners or weekly contenders on the Tour like Spieth.
But there was Spieth, at a place where distance matters most, carving up Augusta National and setting record after record over four days at the Masters. Tiger Woods, who was probably the original leader of this power movement, overwhelmed Augusta in 1997, when he posted his 18-under 270. The course was then lengthened dramatically, and multiple times, in the intervening years. It's what they initially called Tiger-proofing. That 18-under mark seemed unreachable on the renovated layout, but Spieth got to 19-under before finishing with the same 270 as Tiger. So how do you Spieth-proof?
Spieth isn't some impotent wimp. He may be shorter off the tee, but he fires lasers from the fairway. Standing in the 13th fairway holding a FOUR-SHOT lead at the most important tournament in golf, Spieth barreled through a wall of common sense and caution, and decided to give it a rip to try to get home in two.
Just the attempt was inspiring and goddamn heroic -- the ball could have plunged into Rae's Creek and that would still be the case.
Dustin Johnson regularly hits it 25 and 35 yards past Spieth. That length is a major advantage on the par-fives, which we saw on Friday when DJ eagled three par-fives in one round for the first time ever at the Masters. Johnson was 14-under on the par-fives this week. Spieth was 13-under.
Rory McIlroy started Sunday's round with drives of 354 yards and 357 yards on the first two holes. Spieth started with shots of 300 yards and 286 yards, and played them one shot better than Rory. Distance remains an advantage and preferable. Spieth's just showing that it's not required.
So how's he setting record scores? How has he been the best player in the world since December? There's no one area that's an exceeding strength. Usually when a successful pro doesn't bomb it off the tee, he's one of the top-ranked putters, or short-game aces, or ball strikers. Spieth is not exceptional in one area, he just does it all well and ends up on the first page of the leaderboard.
The four-day run at the Masters was a combination of a couple lucky bounces, driving accuracy, solid ball-striking, wonderful wedge play, and incredible putting. He'll start behind his competitor in the fairway, but make up for it by pulling a mid-iron, throwing a dart and then waiting for the other guy to hit his next two or three shots before he gets to play again. The putter has been his hottest club this year, and from one improbable spot after another, he'd divine a birdie. Almost every time Spieth found himself at a disadvantage, he'd get up and down with his wedge and putter, extinguishing the slight hope each chaser held over the final 36 holes. That shot onto the 13th green sealed it on Sunday, but the wedge shot he played at the 18th on Saturday to save par was maybe the most dispiriting to the chasers. After the round, Spieth said it was a "one in five" shot, but again, he went headlong into the less cautious path.
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While almost every other world-class player achieves success because he hammers the ball off the tee, Spieth is zagging a different direction. It would be like watching the Memphis Grizzlies bludgeon their way to an NBA title while everyone else achieves success adopting a "pace-and-space" approach. Sometimes it's fun to do it the other way when that other way has so much character.
Power is usually the signature trait of these young talents that ascend to the top of golf. For the first time ever, the top two players in the world are under the age of 25 -- two contemporaries who appear to have decades of exchanging blows ahead. One is McIlroy, who rolled through major championship fields thanks to his tee ball. The other is Spieth, who just set several Masters records and is now certified as the next in line in American golf. It was refreshing to see excellence achieved in a different way.
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