Monday 5 December 2016

Spieth has changed golf, but it's a different sort of revolution

Dermot Gilleece

Published 04/10/2015 | 17:00

Jordan Spieth of the United States poses on the 18th green after winning both the TOUR Championship By Coca-Cola and the FedExCup at East Lake Golf Club
Jordan Spieth of the United States poses on the 18th green after winning both the TOUR Championship By Coca-Cola and the FedExCup at East Lake Golf Club

During the presentation ceremony for the FedEx Cup at East Lake last Sunday, Johnny Miller couldn't hide his bemusement at the idea of Jordan Spieth having achieved so much by the tender age of 22. And this from a player who had been something of a young sensation in his own right, four decades ago.

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For his years, the scope of Spieth's success has already surpassed the greatest players in the history of the game, even accepting that Gene Sarazen won the US Open at 20 and Bobby Jones did so as a 21-year-old. And we are looking at someone who can continue to set benchmarks way beyond our wildest imaginings.

It is being argued, quite reasonably, that he has yet to change the game the way Tiger Woods did through a focus on physical fitness. There was no suggestion, for instance, of 'Spieth-proofing' Augusta National in the wake his US Masters triumph last April, impressive though it was.

But this is a different sort of revolution. Through the majesty of his putting, Spieth is giving fresh emphasis to golf as essentially a scoring game, which is the credo every tournament professional carries to the first tee. As Des Smyth pointed out: "When I'm asked by parents about golf as a career, I tell them that their youngster must be capable of shooting 69 every round, irrespective of how difficult or easy the golf course is. That's the number they've got to hit."

Respected American golf writer Gary van Sickle captured the essence of what's been happening when he suggested that where the Woods era was about power and fitness, Spieth has changed golf "with less glamorous but no less effective concepts - putting, wedge play and preparation."

The question now is whether, in terms of spectator interest, the more controlled nature of his play can match the dramatic spectacle of former greats.

It will be recalled that Nicklaus made an immediate impact with power and precision as a 22-year-old by winning the US Open of 1962, his rookie year on tour - although fans hated that he had beaten their favourite, Arnold Palmer.

A decade later, Miller's forte was sparkling scoring. At Spieth's age in 1969, he managed only a modest end-of-season haul of $8,364 for 135th position in his first year on tour. In 1974, however, with the US Open under his belt, he won eight times. And this form was carried into 1975 when he followed a winning total of 24-under-par for the Phoenix Open with an untouchable 25-under in the Tucson Open a week later.

As a bonus, he carded 61s in each of those events while competing back-to-back totals that have never since been challenged.

In the matter of consistent spectacle, Woods was the next to capture public appeal before Rory McIlroy, as a 22-year-old, sent pulses racing with a record-breaking aggregate in the 2011 US Open. Then, in recent months, we've had Jason Day delivering the irresistible combination of superb driving, iron play and putting.

But Spieth is different. In securing his fifth victory of the season, he was ranked number one in single putts per round and number two in the percentage of putts made from 15 to 25 feet. The impact that this sort of precision can have on an opponent was evident in the stricken face of playing partner Henrik Stenson at East Lake after Spieth had holed a 45-footer on the short 11th. "That was a dagger," the Swede said afterwards, with admirable absence of rancour. "His putting and mental focus are the best in the world."

Smyth, who rivalled Seve Ballesteros as Europe's best putter from about 1979 to 1983, is hugely impressed by Spieth's overall impact on the game. "He's a natural competitor; a guy who simply loves tournament play," he said from the practice putting green at Baltray. "You can see it in the way he talks to his shots.

"They used to say that Seve wore his combative instincts on his sleeve. This kid's the same. Where some players will tighten up, he clearly loves being in the thick of the action. And all the great players I've seen were great putters, often with different methods.

"I don't see anything really special about Jordan's technique. But I really like the way he strikes the ball. You can hear it as a very clean strike. This happens only through hours of practice, building confidence in your stroke."

In this context, I believe that as a role model, Spieth has far more to offer the club golfer than most other players of the modern era. Just think of it: every handicap golfer is capable of sinking putts like he does, albeit without the same frequency.

I remember when Mike Murphy, then with RTE, did an instructional video with Christy O'Connor Snr, the outcome was a novel approach whereby Himself made no attempt to change a player's method. The entire emphasis was on saving shots around the greens through a tidier short game.

Its simplicity made it one of the finest products of its kind that I've come across. Just as the best putting advice I ever got was from Dave Pelz during a visit he made to Killeen Castle. "Keep the left wrist stiff [through the hit] and you'll sink more short putts," he said. And he was right.

Finally, we can take it that any lingering doubts Michael Greller may have had about quitting life as a teacher in Seattle to caddie for Spieth have been firmly removed. On the assumption that he is getting the normal percentage and bonuses from his young master's $22m haul for the season, it is estimated that Greller would sit at around 40th on the current PGA Tour money list, between Phil Mickelson ($2.15m) and Russell Henley ($2.11m).

This is in line with the $1m which caddie Micah Fugitt is reported to have received after Billy Horschel's FedEx Cup triumph last year.

All of which lends serious appeal to life in those dingy old caddieshacks.

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