Jordan Spieth Served Early Notice: His 2016 May Be Better Than His ’15

January 13, 2016

A certain lightness of being usually predominates in Maui in January, but the soft breeze, pounding surf and syrupy macadamia-nut pancakes can also provide a soothing backdrop for deep thoughts (or at least weird ones).

Indeed, Jordan Spieth’s eight-stroke victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions forced a reckoning, of sorts, begging a question we hadn’t even thought to ask. What if his epic 2015 was not the season for the ages we thought it was? What if this is the new normal?

“I still think it’s going to be very difficult to have a year like last year,” Spieth said from Kapalua, where he built a four-shot lead through 36 holes and never let up. Others weren’t sure what to think.

“He’s been on a roll for such a long time,” said Danny Lee, who finished 16 strokes back and in 15th place, “you can’t call it a roll anymore. He may have gotten better over the winter.”

The Hyundai was only one tournament, and a tournament with only a 32-player field at that. Rory McIlroy didn’t show up, and neither did Justin Rose. Jim Furyk wanted to play but sat out for fear of reinjuring his left wrist, in which he suffered a contusion last year. Still, the revitalized TOC featured six of the top 10 players in the world, and Spieth’s masterly performance (66-64-65-67) was mighty impressive.    

On a course where he had finished second to Zach Johnson in his only other appearance, in 2014, Spieth validated his breakout season (in case anyone thought it was a fluke); became the only player other than Ernie Els (2003 Hyundai, 31 under) to reach 30 under for a 72-hole event; led the field in total putts and strokes gained putting on what he called the slowest Tour greens he’d ever seen; and matched Tiger Woods with his seventh victory before the age of 23. (Both trail Horton Smith, who had 14.)

“My swing is close enough,” Spieth said. “My start lines are good. I don’t have unbelievable ball control, but that very rarely happens.”

No, where he crushed the competition was on the greens. 

Spieth ranked the Hyundai as his third best putting week in the last year, after the Masters and the Tour Championship, and added, “My putting feels like it is 100% ready for major championships.”

Well, that escalated quickly.

“It was just his week,” said Smylie Kaufman, who considers Spieth a friend after their years of seeing each other in junior golf circles. Kaufman smiled and shook his head. “He’s had a lot of those weeks.”

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“I don’t know what course he’s playing,” Lee said. 

“It’s incredible the way Jordan manages his game going around all 18 holes,” said Brooks Koepka, who on Sunday shot a two-under 71 to playing partner Spieth’s 67. “He doesn’t seem to make a mistake. When he does get in trouble, he gets out of it and makes those 15-foot clutch putts to keep the round going. It’s impressive to watch. It really is.”

How impressive? The shot everyone will remember from this TOC was Spieth’s low, drawing 3-iron into the 18th on Saturday that nearly rolled in the hole for an albatross. But Kevin Kisner, his playing partner that day, marveled more at the way the 22-year-old Texan worked his way into the round.

“He wasn’t on top of it at the beginning,” Kisner said. “But he hung in there, and he locked in and found it and he ended up shooting eight under par. He turned a two- or four-under round into an eight-under round. That’s what the great ones do.”

Who can stop Spieth? World No. 2 Jason Day played the Hyundai, but he was a far cry from the player who shot a record 20 under par to win the PGA Championship last August. Coming off a three-month break, he was happy just to fashion a final-round 65 to eke out a T-10. 

“Just trying to get back into the swing of things with being sharp,” Day said. “I’m talking about just not missing greens with wedges, and not three-putting from 20, 30 feet—just little things like that.”

Only Reed, who eagled the 18th hole to edge Spieth 65-66 when they were paired together on Thursday, ever had the upper hand on the world No. 1.   

Spieth’s next start will come on. Jan. 21-24 in the Abu Dhabi Championship, where he’ll see McIlroy (but not Day). Coincidentally, the Middle East is where Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal to win the Qatar Open last weekend. “I played against a player who did everything perfect,” Nadal said.

“It did feel as close to perfection as it could get,” Djokovic admitted.

Halfway around the world, golf’s storyline was eerily similar. After he donned the champion’s lei at Kapalua, Spieth said he was still working on a few things, but added, “I don’t know how I really could have scored better this week.” 

When was the last time you heard a golfer say that?