HAVEN, Wis. — Jordan Spieth is having a tough year. Not only is he not going to win the Grand Slam, on account of finishing one stroke out of the playoff at the British Open, but he still hasn’t reached his goal of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
He’s mired at No. 2 behind Rory McIlroy, who is back in action this week after returning from an ankle injury.
This borders on the tragic. Which is a sarcastic and cynical way of saying, This is Jordan Spieth’s world and we’re only living in it. In Hollywood, they’d say, Jordan Spieth Is Killing It. In New Jersey, they’d say, Boo-frickin’-hoo.
It’s remarkable that Spieth has two wins and a fourth in three majors this year and still trails McIlroy in the rankings. That means McIlroy has been killing it, too, at least until he killed his ankle playing a little soccer.
We spent a lot of years with a Tiger vs. Phil focus (that’s Woods and Mickelson, respectively, for those who are just clicking in from BassMasters.com). We’re about to spend the foreseeable years with a Rory vs. Jordan focus.
It’s a cool matchup because of their contrasting styles. Rory has dominant-player length and superb iron play. Spieth is not long (but longer than average) but is superb with a wedge in his hands from any distance and even better with a putter. In a bunker-shot contest or a scrambling contest or a putting contest, Spieth would be your No. 1-ranked stud.
Tiger and Phil somehow avoided ever really going head-to-head in a major for 20 years. Maybe we can get luckier with Rory and Jordan. Maybe it’ll start this week. Maybe.
Spieth is more old school. He’s Mr. Perfect, in all honesty, and his wholesomeness is almost too good to be true. He’s not going to be sucked into some kind of showdown mentality. He’s going to double-prepare for every major, the way Jack Nicklaus did, and then he’s going to go out and try to beat the course. If he beats Rory and everyone else in the process, so much the better.
To Spieth, Rory vs. Jordan isn’t the main event, even though—nice job, PGA of America officials!—they’re paired together for the first two rounds along with British Open champion Zach Johnson.
“That’s just what you guys want to see,” Spieth said, correctly. “He and I just want to go out and try to win the tournament. We have to beat each other in order to do that, along with 155 other players in the field.”
Spieth wouldn’t be Mr. Perfect without adding this on McIlroy: “We’re all very happy to see him back. I was excited. And what an incredible rehab that was to get back so soon and get to 100 percent. Because I know he wouldn’t play unless he was.”
Spieth also spoke glowingly about McIlroy’s prodigious length off the tee.
“Sure, I wish I could hit it as far as Rory does,” he said. “I work towards that, I’ve gotten a little longer each year. But the way he hits it when he’s driving the ball well, just like Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson, they’re playing a different golf course. I certainly envy that. There’s not much I can do about that except to try to my approaches closer and make a few more putts.”
Rory is not so old school. He’s been the clear No. 1 player for a few years and sports a guarded demeanor that says, Bring it on, kid.
McIlroy said Spieth’s run in majors this year was “inspirational” and motived him to come back. Rory was also asked, flat out, to name the best player in the world. “If you go by this year, you would have to say Jordan,” McIlroy said. “If you go over the last two years, I would say it’s probably a toss-up between Jordan and myself.” That’s what he said. You can probably guess what he was actually thinking. But if not, he offered another clue when he was asked which player is better right now.
“I’ll tell you at the end of the week,” he said. He smiled—not the funny ha-ha smile, but more of a you-know smile.
This is great stuff. Thanks to Spieth, we’ve got the makings of an honest-to-goodness, all-time great, Arnie-and-Jack kind of rivalry. But with due respect to Rory, Jordan is the king of this golf hill until he’s unseated. Yes, Rory has four majors to Spieth’s two, but if it didn’t happen in 2015, it’s ancient history in golf.
Spieth fielded a question Wednesday about when he first learned of Ben Hogan. The obvious connection is that Spieth, like Hogan, is a Texan. And Spieth, like Hogan, could win three majors in one year if he captures this PGA. Tiger Woods is the only other player to score a calendar-year trifecta.
Hogan didn’t play the game the way Spieth does but their results look pretty good. Spieth has four wins and $9.3 million in earnings this season. Those back-to-back major wins have changed his life. Spieth was just getting used to being recognized at home in Dallas and now he’s noticed everywhere. Winning majors will do that for you.
“The last few months, it’s been harder to get around,” he said. “You’ve got to find different ways to go about it—find secret passageways or corner booths.”
Wait, did Mr. Perfect just sound like he was complaining? No, he was just stating the facts. “It’s not a negative,” he added, “it’s something that’s really cool. It’s a great problem to have. I wouldn’t want it any other way, I really wouldn’t. But there are certain things you can’t do that you maybe could do before. So it’s mostly all good. If you want to have a quiet dinner, you better bring it home to your house. I mean, that’s about it.”
So, Spieth is on top of the golf world, at least in the court of public opinion. One other goal hasn’t reached—one he set before this year—was to make the cut in all four majors (that’s low-hanging fruit now) and to contend in at least one. The latter? Done. The former? Well, not just yet.
“I’ve got some work to do these first two days and from there, we’ll adjust and work our butts off to try to get a third major this year,” Spieth said. “That would be a pretty cool place in history to be a part of.”
He always smiles when he says stuff like that. Which you have to admire from Mr. Perfect.
Jordan Spieth is, indeed, killing it.