DORAL, Fla. – Jordan Spieth is a smart man. Way smarter than a 22-year-old should be, anyway. So we should listen to him.
Earlier this week here at the resort that Donald Trump bought on the cheap and has restored to luxury-level status, Spieth addressed the whole New Big Three concept, probably for the hundredth time.
“I don’t think anyone’s buying into the Big Three,” he said. “I’ve spent a good amount of time saying that’s an unnecessary comparison when you look at the Big Three from the past.”
He said “unnecessary” when he surely meant “unfair” or “unreasonable.” His point was, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the original Big Three, were larger than life and bigger than golf. Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, the modern Big Three, are none of those things… yet.
Maybe they will be, maybe not.
They’re not even the biggest names playing here this week. Phil Mickelson reminded us of that Thursday when he opened with a sterling 67 and again Friday when he peeled off four straight birdies on the front nine before fading down the stretch. It got the pulse rate moving.
Mickelson hasn’t won anything since the 2013 British Open, a somewhat unlikely victory that at age 43 could’ve served as a suitable curtain call to his superior career. Mickelson and Tiger Woods carried pro golf from the mid-1990s on and together or individually, nobody moves the needle for the public like these two. They were galvanizing players of immense talent. A lot of fans loved them, a lot of fans disliked them. But they were always the center of attention.
That’s why the Cadillac Championship the last two days has felt like some kind of eerie flashback. Mickelson looks sharp, as sharp as he has in half a decade. His swing seems tighter—well, maybe not when he thinned a shot at the par-3 14th hole Friday and watched it roll down the bank and into the drink for a costly double bogey—and he seems rejuvenated, engaged and ready to win just in time for the one tournament that suits him like no other: the Masters.
The telltale sign that the New Big Three isn’t the Old Big Three, if you really need one, is that Mickelson and Tiger have grabbed headlines this week. Phil, for the improved play that could possibly make him a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, and Tiger for appearing at the grand opening of Bluejack National’s play area, a 10-hole loop of par-3 holes of 105 yards or less, and hugging an 11-year-old who made a hole-in-one in front of the cameras on his first swing. Woods also talked about his post-surgery back, that it’s finally getting “a hell of a lot better.”
You might’ve heard that McIlroy switched to a left-hand-low putting grip this week, that Spieth is treating the Cadillac Championship like a major and that Day said—hey, did Day say anything memorable this week? Oh yeah, he’s off to a slow start after a refreshing off-season and he’s already asked Tiger for advice on how to balance preparation and scheduling as a newly-minted major champion.
But really, no matter who ends up winning the tournament this week, whether it’s Phil or McIlroy, who surged with a front-nine 32 on Friday, or Adam Scott or Bubba Watson, one part of golf hasn’t changed: Even with Tiger sidelined and Phil winless in nearly three years, this is still a Tiger-and-Phil world.
Writers scribbled notes when Mickelson talked about how he thinks that the claw-grip is better on short putts and the conventional putting grip is better on longer putts, so he’s experimenting with using a combination of the two. They nodded when he admitted that he’s not actually staying in the Doral villa that has his name on it—Trump renamed the villa buildings after the game’s greatest players, including Phil and Tiger, the real Big Three, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Phil’s villa is on the side of the resort away from the golf range, on the other side of the renovated pool area and the valet drop-off entrance. It was a lot more ground for him to cover en route to the range, which meant he encountered a lot more fans, so he got a room in a villa course-side (the name won’t be revealed here) so he can pop out the back door onto the practice green unencumbered.
The original Big Three didn’t just go away overnight. Legends like Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd came and went, but the Big Three always remained the Big Three.
The New Big Three aren’t quite there yet. Rory didn’t win a major last year, but he’d already racked up four of them so he gets a pass. Spieth won two, Day broke through and won one. But in the what-have-you-won-for-me-lately category, they aren’t smoking hot. Spieth won the winners-only outing in Kapalua to start the calendar year but McIlroy and Day are still circling.
Tiger and Phil were never tagged with a Dynamic Duo-type nickname. Maybe the media was asleep at the wheel or maybe they were simply too different or too distant as not-so-friendly rivals to package together.
They may always overshadow these relative newcomers because of their larger-than-life personalities and charisma. Mickelson was the man of the people, like Palmer, and has always had a connection with the fans and a penchant for what the fans love—big drives and spectacular trick shots. Tiger brought overwhelming power to the game, outdriving his opponents by 30 or 40 yards the way a young Nicklaus did, and his megawatt smile, knack for clutch shotmaking and putting and his mixed heritage background brought fans to the game in a way no one else ever has. The fans ran after Tiger and Phil, the way Arnie’s Army rushed to follow him.
The New Big Three? The outsized personalities may not be there. They are three great golfers who are nice guys, mostly normal people. They are a long, long ways from the breathless cachet that Tiger and Phil inspire.
While McIlroy was making a big move Friday, Golf Channel kept its cameras on Mickelson all day. Even when he just missed a fifth straight birdie at the par-3 ninth, even when he bogeyed the par-3 13th, doubled the 15th and bogeyed the 17th after his approach shot defied gravity and plugged in the face of the greenside bunker like a fly in a spiderweb. He shot an exciting even-par 72.
You can’t blame Golf Channel for giving viewers what they want. The people who complain about Tiger getting too much TV time and print coverage even when he’s not winning, well, the ratings and the website clicks say that they’re still the big dogs on this tour—even if they’re not necessarily playing.
Our current favorite threesome (Spieth, Day and McIlroy) was paired for the first two rounds at Doral and their galleries weren’t bigger than Phil’s.
That’s all right, that’s how it should be. Phil has earned his lofty position in the game. The Big Three, a phrase we should drop like a hot curling iron, is still trying to earn it.
Spieth is right. No one is buying this package. We’d like to, though, when it’s ready… if it ever is.