‘Rory McIlroy is comparable to Tiger, Jordan Spieth is like Nicklaus’
No-frills Texan’s mental strength shaped by special-needs sister, says Dermot Gilleece
When a 21-year-old first won the Masters, we learned of an ambitious father’s relentless pursuit of perfection, embodied in the grand claim that “the Almighty entrusted this precocious child to me.” Two decades on, another 21-year-old from a sharply contrasting background is in possession of the famous green jacket.
As golfing champions, the development of Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth could hardly be more different. Where Woods was fired by fierce parental drive, his successor found the spark from within himself. “I was never pushed,” said the remarkable young Texan. “I was the one that would walk into my parents’ bedroom at about eight or eight-thirty on a Saturday morning and ask my mom to take me to the golf course because I found out my friends were going up there to play. I think that was a huge key to me falling in love with the game.”
Spieth was then about 10. And with a special-needs daughter of three, one imagines the busy mother having more than enough on her plate without chasing around golf courses. But she did it.
“I think everybody’s personality is different but with mine, I don’t think I would have loved golf as much as I do if I was pushed,” Spieth went on. “It came through playing with my peers at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas. Just being out there, day in and day out, practising and playing.”
His companions were generally a little older. “It’s fun to draw back on those memories sometimes, and I still talk to the same guys I was playing with when I was 10, 11 years old.” Which was evident in heart-warming scenes around the 72nd green at Augusta National last Sunday.
As for the Almighty’s plans for a budding golfer, we are reminded that the Lord works in mysterious ways. For a sister, Jordan was given Ellie, who has a neurological disorder linked to severe autism.
We’re told that a special-needs child has a huge impact on a family, not least of which is the additional responsibility thrust upon siblings. It causes them to mature more rapidly; to be a lot more conscious of the needs of others. And it becomes a powerful source of emotional enrichment. We can picture the contribution Ellie has made to the shaping of the Masters champion, not least because the player himself has been generous enough to tell us so. For my own part, I have never been so moved or impressed by the sporting performance of a 21-year-old.
I can remember the thrill of seeing Woods in his glorious victory march at Augusta in 1997, when he won by a staggering 12 strokes. But the impact of Spieth was more profound, not least because we don’t expect such humility, composure and plain good manners from our champions these days.
It was especially interesting to hear the views of Graeme McDowell, who is made of similar stuff. “Guys like him see nothing unusual in graduating from the Walker Cup to winning PGA Tour events and competing in Major championships, almost overnight,” said McDowell. “Jordan doesn’t drive the ball like Rory [McIlroy], but he drives it far enough. He doesn’t hit his irons like Tiger, but he hits them well enough. He doesn’t chip like Phil Mickelson, but he chips well enough. You get what I’m saying? He’s just a really solid, no-frills player who’s going to have an amazing career.”
In this context, it was once said that Ben Hogan’s greatest strength was that he didn’t have a weakness. And by way of emphasising Spieth’s mental strength, McDowell added: “Rory is comparable to Tiger but I think Jordan is more comparable to Nicklaus.”
Which brings us back to the famous remark by Bobby Jones about golf being played on a course measuring five and a half inches — the distance between one’s ears.
When Nicklaus was in his pomp, he was challenged by Johnny Miller who was a better iron player, by Tom Watson who had a better short game and by Tom Weiskopf who had a better swing. Yet the Bear still succeeded in reeling off Major victories.
This is the prospect Spieth is offering and about which McIlroy will already be acutely aware. As a rivalry, it represents a far more serious challenge to the Holywood star than the target of replacing Woods as world number one, which he set himself back in 2009.
Masters 2015 could prove to be a very significant milestone in modern golf. The demonstration of traditional sporting values by a talented Texan has certainly made the future all the more appealing.