Spieth's win draws more comparisons

By Dan O'Neill
Published on
Spieth's win draws more comparisons

The two most compelling questions surrounding golf this year are, in no particular order, as follows:

Can Tiger Woods ever play again? Can Jordan Spieth ever play like that again?

It will be months before a jury even convenes on the first question, maybe longer before it's out. Woods has had three more back operations than wins over the last two years. There's no timetable in place for his return.

But the Spieth proposition got some early feedback over the weekend. The Jordanian came ashore in Hawaii and picked up where he left off last September in Atlanta. He made mango bread of the field at Kapalua and captured the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by eight shots.

Spieth finished 30 fathoms under the "p" -- as in par -- and joined Ernie Els as the only players in PGA Tour history to complete a 72-hole event at 30 under. Go any lower on a golf course and you reach the earth's inner core.

The performance and summations illustrate what Spieth will deal with this season as he tries to elaborate on his two-major, five-win, $22 million 2015. Golf is all about history and comparisons.

All sports are like that, to be sure. But the individual nature of golf makes the personalities and historical context all the more essential. The next great player in golf shall be compared to the last great player in golf. So it was, is and shall ever be.

Thus, when you read about Spieth's spectacular performance, you read it as reminiscent of the message Woods sent in 2000, when he won in Hawaii at 16 under. It was the first of many Woods installments that year. He went on to win nine PGA Tour events and three majors.

That perspective is what Spieth will deal with in the weeks ahead. He has to hear it over and over, respond to it every week. It doesn't matter that Spieth doesn't play the same game as Woods.

Woods is to golf what Michael Jordan was to basketball, Willie Mays to baseball, Gale Sayers to football and Bobby Orr to hockey. They are the greatest individual talents in the history of their respective sports. They did things other players couldn't do or had never done before.

Whether they are the "greatest players" of each sport historically is debatable. The two designations are not necessarily equivalent. The latter study brings more qualities and qualifiers into the discussion.

Spieth doesn't overpower. Augusta did not spend the winter "Jordan-proofing" its golf course. Spieth is not God's gift to telestration, his ball-striking is not extraordinary. He was 78th in driving distance last season, 80th in driving accuracy, 49th in greens in regulation, 52nd in total driving, 45th in all-around ball striking, 26th in proximity to the hole.

Those are career-best numbers for him, and frankly they could belong to a player who finished 50th on the money list. What Spieth does better than anyone is get the ball in the hole. In that category, "when" is vastly more important than "how."

If we're going to compare Spieth to Woods in 2000, maybe its prudent to liken him to David Duval in 1999. Coming off a good finish in '98, the 27-year old Duval opened '99 with a 26-under win in Hawaii. Two weeks later, he shot a closing 59 and won the Bob Hope Classic. In March, he captured the Players Championship and in April he unseated Woods as No. 1 in the world. On April 12, the cover of Sports Illustrated declared "David Duval is On Fire."

The comparisons and distractions began. The diffident, socially anxious Duval wasn't anything like Woods. But from a distance, it seemed as if he tried to be. He went on a fitness craze, turning his once-slovenly body into tempered steel, playing in form-fitting, no-collar shirts.

He changed equipment manufacturers and signed fat contracts with Nike and Oakley. He became a must-show target for television and a must-have interview. He even threw a few clumsy fist pumps around.

But his career soon went into a free-fall. After the SI cover came out, Duval won only two more times. Amid the personal problems, back problems and awkward news conferences, he never found the same fairway-splitting consistency.

But Spieth is nothing like Duval, either. Spieth is not timid or uncomfortable in No. 1 skin. He somehow manages to come off as just an ordinary young man, humble, family-oriented, unaffected and pragmatic. He is smart enough to learn from Woods instead of imitating him.

"I'm trying to figure some of that out on my own because everyone is different," Spieth told reporters in Hawaii. "But I do think there is something in asking someone like Tiger a lot of questions on how he's been able to do it."

It's exciting to think Spieth can keep it, and to think other talents like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will be engaged, as well. After all, Spieth is only the second player since World War II to have seven PGA Tour wins at the age of 22.

The other was Tiger Woods, not that there's anything wrong with that.

This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.