Jordan Spieth in elite company because of majors, not style points
SOUTHPORT, England — Jordan Spieth was happy enough to see his name on the claret jug without wondering where he fit in among the rest of the Open champions whose names are engraved on the oldest trophy in golf.
In that respect, nothing has changed.
Spieth wasn't keen on comparisons when he became the youngest Masters champion since Tiger Woods, the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones or the youngest to win two majors since Gene Sarazen. And now that Jack Nicklaus is part of the conversation, he shies away from them even more.
Spieth and Nicklaus are the only players to capture the third leg of the Grand Slam at age 23.
"I'll be careful with my answer," Spieth said Sunday when asked about his place among the greats. "It's amazing. I feel blessed to be able to play the game I love, but I don't think comparisons ... I don't compare myself. And I don't think that they're appropriate or necessary. So to be in that company no doubt is absolutely incredible, and I certainly appreciate it."
To hear his name listed in such elite company is merely a reward from the work he put in to get there.
"But I'm very careful as to what that means going forward," he added, "Because what those guys have done has transcended the sport. 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."
But if he were to win the PGA Championship in three weeks, he will be only the sixth — and youngest — to have all four majors.
The prospect is exciting, though recent history illustrates why success can be so fleeting in golf.
Rory McIlroy looked unstoppable when he won the Open and PGA Championship at the end of 2014, and then headed to Augusta National for a shot at the Grand Slam. Who could possibly beat that blend of power and scoring? Spieth won the Masters in a runaway. McIlroy has finished six shots behind at Augusta in each of the three chances he has had to complete the Grand Slam.
Phil Mickelson won the Open in 2013 and was a U.S. Open away from a career Grand Slam — the major where he was runner-up six times. In three chances since, Mickelson has finished 15 and 18 shots out of the lead and missed the cut last year.
More than winning at Royal Birkdale was the manner in which Spieth did it.
That evokes more comparisons.
Even though Spieth already has 11 victories on the PGA Tour, including his three majors, he does not bring intimidation to the first tee. Geoff Ogilvy spoke to that two years ago at St. Andrews when Spieth was trying to win the calendar Grand Slam.
"He beats you with better golf. He doesn't beat you because he hits it further," Ogilvy said that day. "Tiger's intimidation was that he always did something amazing. Jordan doesn't beat you with a crazy par, or a crazy chip-in. He just beats you because he's better."
But there were Tiger-like qualities that emerged from a six-hole stretch of golf at Royal Birkdale that became part of major championship lore.
Spieth salvaged a 5 on the 13th hole while playing his third shot with a 3-iron from the driving range, so far away that he wasn't even sure of the yardage and couldn't see any part of the hole. He faced a delicate pitch over a pot bunker and then a must-make putt.
What followed was a 6-iron that nearly went in for an ace, a 50-foot eagle that found the center of the cup and a 30-foot birdie across the 16th green.
Was this really happening?
The feelings must have been similar watching Nicklaus make his charge on the back nine to win the 1986 Masters. The drama was similar to Woods running off three straight birdies at Valhalla when he won his third straight major in a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship.
The payoff for Spieth was more than the third leg of the Grand Slam. It might have been a big step in creating a mystique, a trait shared by precious few over history.
"These are the intangibles, the things I just don't understand," Zach Johnson said. "I'm not suggesting I can't do it. He just does it all the time."
Ernie Els even raised the prospect of Spieth reaching the 14 majors won by Woods.
"When you get on a roll like that, guys kind of starting knowing that you know how to win," Els said. "And almost like Tiger, where people can maybe feel like they can't do it against Jordan. Because he's been up there a few times now."
And as he showed Sunday at Royal Birkdale, he has a sense of the occasion. Next up is how that translates at the PGA Championship.