April 12, 2015. Write down that date. It marks the beginning of a new era for golf, a day when the sport turned 21 all over again.
Not since Tiger Woods seized control of Augusta National at that age in 1997 has golf had a surge of youthful excitement like the one 21-year-old Jordan Spieth provided Sunday.
Spieth is the second-youngest Masters winner and only the fifth wire-to-wire winner. He also tied for the lowest four-round score in the tournament's 79-year history.
Great accomplishments, but there’s so much more to come.
What Spieth did Sunday was launch golf into a new age, one that’s guaranteed to see this University of Texas product lock longhorns with golf’s other notoriously gifted youngster, Rory McIlroy.
Together, they may write an even more compelling chapter of golf history than the one Tiger has authored.
The one downside to Woods’ dominance has been that he’s never truly had a rival, a near-equal who could threaten his monopoly on the majors. He never had someone to play Joe Frazier to his Muhammad Ali.
Phil Mickelson made a game run at standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tiger, but with five majors to Tiger’s 14, they never really spun in the same orbit.
Spieth has demonstrated he’s ready to go eye-to-eye with McIlroy in any event, and he'll take his chances on not blinking first.
McIlroy is a little more than four years older than Spieth, so their best days figure to intersect often in a sport where an athlete’s prime can last two decades.
McIlroy earned his reputation as the world’s greatest young golfer by winning a major on his 10th try, at 22. Spieth needed only eight, and he got there a year sooner.
Both had to botch a major before they could win one. But when Spieth bobbled away the 2014 Masters to Bubba Watson, he still finished tied for second. McIlroy’s epic fourth-round meltdown at the 2011 Masters dropped him all the way to 15th.
Both exude a natural charm on the course that television audiences are going to love more and more.
But with Spieth, there’s a sense that the budding star from the Lone Star State will fully unleash his Texas bravado at some point.
He ignored chances to lay up Sunday, and he kept attacking when others might have played safe. He arrived at the 18th green looking grateful—but not at all surprised—to be there after taking control of Augusta National as if Bobby Jones left it to him in his will.
And he hasn’t been shy about wanting to supplant McIlroy as the world No. 1, a goal he repeated to reporters Sunday.
“The ultimate goal each week is to be the No. 1 player in the world,” Spieth said, per The Independent's Ian Herbert.
“He has got four majors. That’s something I can still only dream about," added Spieth about taking on McIlroy. "I won’t hit it as far as he does and that’s something I will just have to make up. I don’t know as far as the rivalry now. I’m looking forward to getting into the heat of the moment with him a couple of times and hopefully we can battle it.”
Challenge issued. Game on. And with McIlroy and Spieth due to go 1-2 respectively in the next world rankings, the battle is officially on.
|Jack Nicklaus||1962 US Open||22 years, 4 months, 27 days|
|Tiger Woods||1997 Masters||21 years, 3 months, 14 days|
|Rory McIlroy||2011 US Open||22 years, 1 month, 17 days|
|Jordan Spieth||2015 Masters||21 years, 8 months, 16 days|
Best of all for their rivalry, Spieth already has the thing McIlroy covets most at the moment—the green Masters jacket that would complete the latter's career grand slam.
Thanks to Spieth, McIlroy will have to wait at least another 365 days to achieve that goal. Or perhaps much longer, given that Spieth has now played eight rounds at Augusta National, and he has never been over par or out of contention in any of them.
Spieth may not hit it as far as McIlroy, but his short-game accuracy and unflinching putting may well make him a one-man roadblock for McIlroy’s grand slam aspirations.
And McIlroy, even after winning two majors last year at the age of 25, no doubt realizes he’ll have to raise his game another notch if he’s to remain atop the sport.
“It’s nice to get your major tally up and running at quite an early stage of your career," McIlroy said of Spieth's victory Sunday, per Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post. "It’s great to see, great for the game, and I’m sure he’ll win many more.”
McIlroy is sure about that, but probably not too happy. The Northern Irishman has had no problem separating himself from the rest of golf’s young guns—Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Patrick Reed and the like.
But they all have yet to prove themselves at a major, much less pass the acid test of leading the Masters for four straight days.
Not even Tiger won any of his four green jackets in that style.
But you can bet that McIlroy is now thinking about how to top it.
Tom Weir covered several golf majors as a columnist for USA Today.