Tour Confidential: Can Anyone Catch Jordan Spieth?

January 11, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below. This week, to ring in 2016, we will do our best to predict what we’ll see in the next 12 months.

1. Jordan Spieth has picked up in 2016 where he left in 2015 by crushing the field at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. What’s the biggest takeaway from Spieth’s performance at Kapalua?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: That it all matters to him. He has no mail-it-in in him.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Spieth was pretty rock solid across the board, splitting fairways and grazing flags with irons. But much like last year, his chipping and putting really stood out. All the scarier for the competition is that he said he hand’t been practicing his chipping much. Take away? He’s BAAAACCK.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): He’s sure lucky. And pretty good. Kapalua doesn’t mean much but I’ll stick by my claims that McIlroy and Day are going to have a hard time beating Spieth.

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Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): The lesson is that Spieth’s 2015 wasn’t an aberration, and as one player just told me he might have actually gotten better over the break. That’s a pretty scary thought for the rest of the Tour.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): It wasn’t a major, but I’d call an eight-shot romp an awfully strong response to Rory McIlroy’s statement that Spieth could be in for a tough year trying to follow up what he did in 2015. As for the state of his game, can we at long last dispel the notion that Spieth isn’t long enough? Yes, Kapalua’s fairways are wider than wide, but I was impressed with how he controlled his driver. That has to be a scary thought for the chasers.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): The kid’s utter relentlessness. Even after all he’s accomplished he’s not hungry…he’s ravenous.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Well, astute golf fans already knew this Spieth guy was a pretty good player even before Kapalua. The big lesson is that, of the new Big Three, Spieth is the only guy currently capable of transforming it into the Big One.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): He’s primed to inherit Tiger’s mantle as the dominant Number 1. It doesn’t mean Rory, Jason, Rickie, Dustin and Bubba won’t continue to win their share, it just means that Spieth made a statement: Everybody’s here, except Rory, and he crushed everybody. Spieth didn’t ease into 2016, he ripped into it, just like Tiger used to do. Game on. Everybody’s now chasing Jordan.

2.’s Cameron Morfit hypothesized that players are pressing too hard when paired with Spieth, in the same way that players did when paired with Tiger Woods. Have you seen much evidence of that?

BAMBERGER: I haven’t seen it myself, but if Cameron has, take it to the bank.

SENS: I don’t disagree, but Spieth dominates in such an affable way, and without overwhelming power, so any effect he has comes off far more subtly. In Tiger’s heyday, guys playing with him largely had the doomed look of Hector going up against Achilles. Glaze-eyed, stricken. Defeat seemed certain. With Spieth, the trouncing doesn’t look inevitable. And then, suddenly, it does.

VAN SICKLE: In the sense that they’re sure Spieth is going to shoot a good score and they press to make birdies, maybe. But players fell down paired with Tiger because they were intimidated and rightfully in awe. Not quite the same for Jordan.

MORFIT: On Saturday (alas, the day after I filed the column), Brandt Snedeker said, “You can’t make a lot of mistakes. … It puts a lot of pressure on you…” And Spieth said: “When Tiger’s in contention, why is his record so phenomenal? Well, sure, he played the best golf and he was the strongest mentally, but everyone else knew that he could do it and maybe tried to do a bit too much and then they’re out of their own sync, out of their own game.” As far as evidence, Patrick Reed was five back when he got to the par-5 15th hole Sunday, desperate to make something happen. He hit some very wild shots and bogeyed it.

RELATED: Jordan Spieth Says Slow Down on Tiger Comparisons

GODICH: Tiger would intimidate with dazzling iron play. Spieth beats opponents into submission in his own unique way. He might go through stretches where he’s not striking the ball crisply, yet he never makes the major mistake. Plus, he’s so exceptional on and around the greens that he can go low even when he’s fighting his swing. Demoralizing to playing partners? You bet.

SHIPNUCK: They’re not intimidated like they were with Tiger – he went out of his way to make playing partners uncomfortable, and in his prime radiated a badassery that was foreign to the sport. Spieth is friendly and agreeable between the ropes but his game does push the other guys out of their comfort zone because they know he’s just gonna keep coming, and if they make mistakes they’ll get run over.

RITTER: Last week Morfit had a closer look at Spieth (and pods of humpback whales) than most of us, so he’s no doubt onto something. I do think Tiger had more tricks in his bag — crowding on tee boxes, leaving the green early after putting out, icy stares, etc. — whereas the affable Spieth is intimidating only through the quality of his golf.

PASSOV: I don’t have any empirical evidence for that, but anecdotally, Cameron’s theory seems plausible. No one since Tiger in his prime has such a knack for holing a difficult chip or monster putt like Jordan. Eventually, that has to weigh on his playing partners, knowing it’s coming, it’s coming and then boom, he curls in a 35-footer.


3. The Hyundai Tournament of Champions reestablished some of its relevance by attracting a field that included six of the top 10 players in the world. Now it has the world’s best player as its reigning champion. Is the TOC officially back?

BAMBERGER: Unfortunately, the grandeur of the event has been diminished by the so-called wrap-around season, but there’s still something great about it, golfers on this far-away island, playing a beautiful course with fairways wide enough for a football game with a sort of relaxed intensity. I’ve always liked it.

SENS: Nice to have the top dog as the reigning champ, but the Hyundai still has the aura of an early season tuneup. A very pretty, tropical tuneup, but a tuneup nonetheless.

VAN SICKLE: It’s back to what it always was, the easiest tournament on tour to win. It’s a miniature field and at the start of the year, half the guys have barely dusted off their clubs. If I was a tour winner, I’d treat it like a major and prepare hard. Wins are hard to come by and this one is a great opportunity.

MORFIT: It’s back in part because Spieth says it is. He challenged the media to call him on it if he ever skips this tournament, which signals a promising future for the event. From the spearfishing to his love of the course, he has a lot of reasons to keep coming here. And the field might only get better; Rory McIlroy might want to think twice about skipping it again and quite possibly giving Spieth a headstart in the W column (and the race for World Ranking points).

GODICH: It is what it is: a no-cut, small-field money grab staged at a spectacular venue. Of course, it can’t hurt that the folks at Kapalua already have a commitment for 2017 from the best player in the game.

SHIPNUCK: It never really went away. Even with weak fields it was still a great telecast because of the course, the views and the mellow vibe. Big-time players certainly help but for die-hard fans Kapalua will always be a welcome way to kick off the year.

RITTER: The TOC was never gone. As long as it keeps it current date and venue, the tournament will always be a nice, mellow way to kick off a new year. Spieth added some juice, but the field will always be strong, and it’ll always be fun to watch.

PASSOV: The TOC is officially back baby! I don’t root for tournaments per se, outside of my hometown Waste Management Phoenix Open, but I admit I’m tickled for Kapalua. All those years when eligible greats would skip the event–Tiger, Phil, the Euros and others–are a distant memory. Spieth did his best PR proclaiming at the beginning of the week as to how happy he was to be here, how great the place was, the surf, the fun–and then he goes out and romps to victory. The field, the course and Spieth’s win gets me very fired up, the perfect antidote to the who-cares, disjointed silliness that is the 2015 portion of the PGA Tour’s wraparound season.

4. Justin Thomas said last week that he would rather be a member of a winning Ryder Cup team than win a major. Has Ryder Cup hysteria and Team USA’s task-force-driven desperation to return to the winner’s circle caused players to overvalue the importance of the event?

BAMBERGER: Memo to Justin Thomas: Jack Nicklaus, who has a PRODIGIOUS memory, cannot tell you his own Ryder Cup record.

SENS: Something tells me that if you were to go back to Thomas after he’s accomplished both, he might have a different perspective. But if that’s how he honestly feels, great. Nothing wrong with that sort of fire and team spirit. And nice to hear a guy talking openly about how badly he wants that W, as opposed to players in the past who have tried to downplay the significance by insisting that the Cup is just an exhibition when it was pretty clear that no one in the world, themselves included, was actually looking at it that way.

VAN SICKLE: Really, you can be U.S. Open champion or win a Ryder Cup and you’d take the Ryder Cup? I don’t believe that but what’s great is, that attitude is 180 degrees different from the guys in the late ’90s like Tiger, Phil, O’Meara and Duval who may or may not have been quite as enthused as some others. I wouldn’t complain about more American players saying they want to win a Ryder Cup. That’s a plus.

MORFIT: Europe has essentially kicked sand in the Americans’ faces for the better part of the last 20 years. Thomas and his young colleagues have watched most of that–Europe’s trolling ole, ole refrain; the popping of the champagne corks; Poulter-mania–play out on TV. Why wouldn’t they be sick of it?

GODICH: Here’s an idea for young Justin: Why can’t you have both? Win a major in 2016, and your spot will be all but secured. Yes, the hype has gotten out of hand, but I admire the players’ desire to play for their country. Remember when we questioned whether the Americans cared?

SHIPNUCK: I thought his comments were great. This a new generation of young, scrappy Americans, with Spieth clearly the alpha male. Thomas’s fire is exactly what the U.S. needs to make the Cup relevant again.

RITTER: I have no problem with Thomas’s comments. Besides, if Thomas is on the Ryder Cup team, it means he’s also performed extremely well in the majors, and maybe even won one.

PASSOV: Great question–I’m glad someone finally brought this up. I’m as gung-ho for the stars and stripes as the next guy, but I can’t fathom this viewpoint. There is no atmosphere in golf as electric and choke-worthy as the Ryder Cup, but folks, it’s still an exhibition. Can anybody out there tell me what Jack Nicklaus’ career Ryder Cup record was? Exactly. Yet every golf fan worth his launch monitor knows the precise number of majors Tiger is chasing.


5. Parsons Xtreme Golf, or PXG, raised eyebrows when it signed eight new players for 2016, including Billy Horschel and Zach Johnson. Johnson had won 12 times including two majors ― most recently the 2015 British Open ― with Titleist. Were you surprised to see so many top pros jump ship from established brands to join an untested upstart?

BAMBERGER: No, because Mr. Parsons has cash money, plenty of it, and the people he has signed are professional golfers.

SENS: I’d be more surprised if Parsons didn’t have such big ambitions, and a billion or so bucks to back them up. You need that kind of muscle to make such quick waves in the equipment market. As for the clubs themselves, they may be untested in tournaments, but these players have a good enough feel for the game to know what’s going to work for them. Also, last I checked, we hadn’t heard the exact terms of their endorsement deals.

VAN SICKLE: Pros are pretty confident that as long as they’ve got their shafts, they can hit just about anything that’s on the end of them. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. In golf, money talks. Check back in two years to see who’s playing PXG. It could be a bust or it could be the next Callaway or TaylorMade.

MORFIT: Horschel’s switch might be the most surprising, since he was such a rah-rah Ping guy, but there’s been a lot of movement from Ping to PXG, not just him. There’s also been a lot of misinformation about how much PXG is paying guys to come over. PXG’s Bob Parsons told me, “In every case, they’ve come to us, and they’re making less than their prior spouse wanted to pay them.”

GODICH: Money talks.

SHIPNUCK: When a quirky new golf website comes along and offers to quadruple our salaries, let’s see how many of us make the leap. That will be your answer.

RITTER: It’s a surprise that Parsons landed so many big names, and I’m interested to see how they play with the new gear. For a fresh, new company, this certainly qualifies as a splashy debut.

PASSOV: We saw this a lot back in the go-go 90s, generally with predictable results, where players took the easy cash and then fizzled with their new, inadequate clubs. Say what you want about Bob Parsons, always a lightning rod for controversy, but the main club men in his stable are ex-Ping guys, so I’m not surprised to see so many big names aligning with this particular upstart.

6. A Houston thrift shop announced last week that it had come across an unusual donation: a green jacket that belonged to an Augusta National member in the 1960s. (An online buyer from Pennsylvania quickly snatched it up for an undisclosed sum.) What piece of golf memorabilia would you most like to stumble upon?

BAMBERGER: Bobby Jones’s original manuscript for “Down the Fairway.” He could play, he could write, he could run a golf tournament–golf’s original polymath.

SENS: Hate to sound unromantic, but I’m not a memorabilia guy. That said, I wouldn’t mind coming across Bobby Jones’ green jacket, assuming I could sell it for the $300,000 that it fetched at auction last year. That 300k would buy a lot of golf, which I’d much rather have than some dusty golf artifact.

VAN SICKLE: Taking a page from Happy Gilmore, I’d like some winner’s oversized check for $1.2 million. Also the regular-sized check for $1.2 million signed over to me, thank you.

MORFIT: I’d like to own Jack’s goofy, giant putter from when he won the ’86 Masters.

GODICH: The claret jug — with my name on it.

SHIPNUCK: The roofie that was slipped into Robert Allenby’s drink [wink] a year ago this week.

RITTER: Hard to beat an authentic green jacket, but I might rank the club Alan Shepard used during a 1971 moon landing in that same class, since it’s one-of-a-kind (and it’s been to the moon!).

PASSOV: As a scorecard collector, I’d like to have the Merion card from the final match of the 1930 U.S. Amateur, when Bobby Jones clinched the Grand Slam. Failing that, I’ll take three whiskers from the beard of Old Tom Morris.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.