To understand why 2015 was the best year ever, it's helpful to go back to New Year's Day. Imagine you had been told what was coming, that Tiger wouldn't win; that he would shoot 82 in Phoenix and 85 at the Memorial; and that the scorecard of his season would reflect two more back operations, making three total before he hit 40. And you knew Phil Mickelson would again go winless, his best result a T2 at the Masters, and that Rory McIlroy wouldn't win a major and, oh, man, wouldn't even tee it up at the British Open at St. Andrews after hurting his ankle playing soccer.
You wouldn't have held out much hope, right? And yet here we are at the end of a season in which we barely paid attention to any of those guys. That's because it was a season that entertained from start to finish, gave us a compelling narrative named Jordan Spieth as he nearly made it three-quarters of the way to the calendar-year grand slam, and forced us to look at the game and the foreseeable future in a whole new light.
"I used to worry about Tiger Woods going away," Tour veteran Will MacKenzie told me before the recent RSM Classic. "But I'm not worried about that anymore."
The first indication that this might be a breakout year for professional golf came at the Valspar Championship at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, outside Tampa, Fla. That's where Spieth and Patrick Reed, two kids who would be King, and Sean O'Hair, fighting to reclaim his career, stole the show. Spieth made several deft par saves and even a bogey save (at the sixth, largely forgotten now) to get into the playoff. O'Hair's birdie putt on the second hole of sudden death came thisclose to falling.
A few minutes later, when Spieth rolled in a 30-footer for birdie on the third extra hole to dispatch O'Hair and Reed, he punctuated it with a yell and a double fist pump. As I stood greenside soaking it all in I felt something familiar: Spieth's heroics somehow seemed unlikely and yet inevitable at the same time. Tiger was like that, too. Keep in mind the Valspar was only the sixth best tournament of 2015. (The top five were made up of the majors and the Players Championship, where Rickie Fowler was brilliant.)
"That win at the Valspar triggered everything that followed," Spieth's caddie Michael Greller told me recently. "You can see what it meant to his confidence."
Spieth finished second to Jimmy Walker at the Valero Texas Open; lost a playoff to J.B. Holmes to finish second again at the Shell Houston Open; and dominated at the Masters at Augusta, where he slept on the lead every night, met with the media every afternoon, and in the end tied Woods for lowest winning score at 18 under par.
The rest, as they say, is history -- Spieth getting handed the U.S. Open trophy when Dustin Johnson three-putted the 72nd hole; Spieth fighting through a wind delay and spitting rain to very nearly win his third straight major at the British Open; and Spieth contending deep into Sunday at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which gave us another new star in Jason Day, who got off the major championship goose egg and kept right on winning to start the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Day, McIlroy and Spieth. How many majors might they win?
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said earlier this month that he's not sure how long he'll stay on at Tour HQ in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., even though he has been in power for nearly 23 years and his current four-year contract expires next June. But can you blame him? Who would want to leave all this behind?
Woods was chilly and hard to know. Day, McIlroy and Spieth couldn't be nicer. In addition to owning 2015, when they combined for 12 wins, they also took ownership of the small moments. One of these came at the rain-soaked, season-ending Tour Championship, which Spieth would win. He was doing some short game work before the third round, and he was being watched by, among others, a boy of about 10 and his father.
The boy held an East Lake flag festooned with autographs, and it was clear from his hopeful expression that he still needed the biggest name of all. Finally, Spieth wrapped up his work on the practice green and headed toward the driving range, his route taking him only a few feet away from the little, flag-toting fan.
"Mr. Spieth, Mr. Spieth," the boy squeaked, almost unable to get the words out. "Would you please sign my flag?"
Spieth stopped and turned around. "Hey, bud," he said, looking warmly at the boy. "I'm going to sign after the round, OK? I'll get you then."
Five hours later, after Spieth had birdied 18 to take the lead, after he'd checked his card and spoken to the media, he worked his way to the top of a mud-slicked hill, where, one by one, he signed for the dozens of kids waiting for him. Sign, smile. Sign, smile. Sign, smile. Moving down the line, Spieth suddenly was just 20 yards from the clubhouse, 20 yards from an escape. He was ushered away, and had taken only three strides before he froze and spun around. Reaching three-deep into the crowd, he grabbed one last flag to sign.
"Here you go, bud," Spieth said, handing it back to the tiny fan he'd made his promise to hours before.
History awaited, and the eventual Player of the Year, his pants splattered with mud, disappeared into the clubhouse, leaving the boy and his father astonished. There, outside Atlanta, amid the ubiquitous logos of the presenting sponsor (Coca-Cola), they were left to savor Spieth's very own Mean Joe Greene moment.
It was magic. It was Spieth. It was 2015.