Jordan Spieth is not your traditional game-changer, but what he’s doing may turn out to be the saviour of golf, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.
Every now and then someone comes along and changes the game as we know it. Rugby had Jonah Lomu, basketball had Michael Jordan, and golf had Tiger Woods.
Before Lomu burst onto the scene, we were blissfully unaware that big men could move like that. Since, we are now even more demanding of our big men in rugby’s backline. They now have to be able to tackle, and offload, with soft hands. What next?
Before Michael Jordan single-handedly turned the NBA into a global enterprise, we were happy to dip in and out of the NBA for when the Celtics met the Lakers. Since MJ, we are now expecting on-court competitiveness and outrageous athleticism every time we tune in. He brought an intensity to every game that everyone since will be measured against.
Before Tiger Woods had most touring pros wishing access to the Seniors Tour came at 40 rather than 50, we were scarcely interested in golf apart from the majors. Since Woods, we are less tolerant of non-athletic golfers and more expectant of robotic responses to pressure.
Moreover, the tradition and culture that surrounds a sport feeds our expectations and assumptions. The Premier League have convinced us that soccer players cannot consistently play more than one game per week before it has a significant negative impact on the quality of the play on show. Yet the NBA consists of 82 regular season matches across three time zones in only 26 weeks. Go figure. What is tolerated in one sport is not even on the radar of another.
There are also seminal moments that release a sport from such assumptions and blinkered thinking. Until Roger Bannister ran under four minutes for the mile in 1954, it was believed an impossible feat. Yet, once the seal was broken, the proverbial floodgates opened and many others followed suit.
However, these game-changers are not always a good thing for a sport.
Woods was so far ahead of the chasing pack that people became accustomed to playing for second place. And because he brought so much money into the game, second place quickly became more lucrative than what was previously a winner’s cheque.
It was always going to take time for the game of golf to adjust to the rise and fall of Woods. In the blink of an eye, rookie tour players were setting out on their careers with a plethora of sponsors clambering to buy up the valuable real estate on their kit. Primetime television coverage from Thursday to Sunday quickly made golf a corporate billboard.
A player’s targets shifted as the financial landscape changed. Rookies started their careers with money in the bank to enable them to go out there and cut loose for that maiden top-10 finish and a six-figure pay cheque. The once holy grail of a maiden victory was not a necessity any more.
Fortunately, for the game of golf, things have finally begun to settle. The injection of youth into the game is having an incredible impact on the top of the leaderboard. Young guns are hitting the Tour with little or no respect for the tradition of plying their trade to learn the ropes before entering the winners’ circle.
Guys are charging onto Tour nowadays. The vast sums on offer are there but that is not all that is driving them towards success. Tiger’s dominance shook the world of golf up like no-one ever will again. But we are only now beginning to see the real fruits of his time in the game.
The athleticism that Tiger showcased is now the norm. But again, because he was so much more athletic than everyone else, it made it easy for his peers at the time to separate themselves from what he was doing. It took time for people to adjust to the fact that golf is a highly athletic sport. It has to be, to be able to do what is now required week-in week-out, such are the forces going through the body with every swing.
The psychology of Tiger was unlike anything we had seen before either. The mere sight of him on the leaderboard had seasoned pros quaking in their shoes. His dominance was great to watch. But his legacy was going to be measured by how kids of the 90s changed the game when he was gone.
One such kid is Rory McIlroy. He is here to stay, there is no doubting that. His current run of erratic form will be one he will look back on as a critical part of his future spectacular career. But there are elements to Rory’s game that could result in the same unattainable, superhuman thoughts that Tiger triggered in his peers.
Jordan Spieth might be the everyman that best represents the impact of Tiger’s time in the game. He is not in awe of the millions of dollars on offer because he knows no different. And though he has an outrageous record since turning pro in 2012, his talents do not appear to scare his opponents. The opposite in fact.
Spieth is leading the charge of precocious young men who are taking the large sums of money for granted in order to focus on titles. Of the 26 events on the USPGA tour this season, 18 have been won by players in their 20s, with half of them under 25 years of age. These are the generation inspired by Tiger Woods.
They have no fear, because their inspiration showed no fear. The candid nature in which they talk about the game is also different. Where most golfers appear to not know from one week to the next whether they’ll be competitive or not, this new breed of competitors have little of that hit-and-hope language in their vocabulary. Playing well does not come as a surprise to them. Being consistently in contention is not a pipe dream, it is a reality.
Not satisfied to win an event here and there, but to win multiple events every year, these young guns are bucking the trend of golf’s history. Where previously players run hot for a couple of seasons before fading away to the middle of the pack, there is a sense that the strength and depth in the game nowadays will keep everyone’s interest for years to come.
Spieth’s interviews following his Open Championship win at Royal Birkdale speak volumes for the mindset of the young superstars coming through. Not one to shy away from the inevitable questions about his collapse at last year’s Masters, he openly admitted to the work put in to cope with the likelihood of a final round wobble.
What’s more, there is an inevitability about what’s still to come. His success will not intimidate his peers, if anything, it will embolden them. The days of golfers having a couple of good seasons to define a career may be behind us.
Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Si Woo Kim, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama are looking to make the likes of Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy feel old. Before their time.
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