Sport Golf

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Spieth's Grand ambitions have their roots in historical rivalries

We are being forced into a re-think of the Grand Slam issue

Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy look destined to become golf’s next great rivalry
Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy look destined to become golf’s next great rivalry
Rory McIlroy
Dustin Johnson is already being compared with Greg Norman given his penchant for throwing away Majors

Dermot Gilleece

Little more than an hour after sustaining the most crushing blow of his career to that point, Jack Nicklaus was seen with typical acceptance playing carefree tennis at the back of his Muirfield hotel. It was the closest he would ever get to attaining golf's Grand Slam, which had become his primary golfing goal for the 1970s.

Decades after that setback of 1972, when he lost the Open Championship by a stroke to Lee Trevino, it still burns bright as an objective, if not for him, then for his successors. "Though I never got there, I believe the Grand Slam is feasible," he claims.

Where Tiger Woods failed in 2002 by finishing 28th at Muirfield, it is now the turn of Jordan Spieth who, last Sunday at Chambers Bay, became only the sixth player to win the Masters and US Open in the same year. However, from Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951 and '53), Arnold Palmer (1960), Nicklaus and Woods, only the last three had a chance of actually going all the way.

There was no Open in 1941 due to World War II and Hogan's only opportunity in 1953 was scuppered by the fact that the PGA Championship, then with an early date, clashed with qualifying for Carnoustie. So, this year's opportunity for Spieth becomes a very rare occurrence.

Indeed we are looking at rare times on the tournament scene in general, arguably the biggest change since Woods stormed to prominence with a 12-stroke win in the 1997 Masters. Speculation of stage-fright prior to Chambers Bay has been hardened into a distinct probability by the player's seeming inability to bring practice-ground form into the competitive arena.

All of which lends unintended prescience to a comment he made as far back as 2001 when, ironically, at the peak of his formidable powers, he said: "It's a game that's very fickle. You can try as hard as you want and sometimes it just doesn't work out." Indeed.

As Pádraig Harrington demonstrated, Major success has always been more about the mind than about technique. And from a competitive standpoint, Woods' mind is seriously scrambled, making his current plight reminiscent of the torment Seve Ballesteros was made to endure during the 1990s, when his game went into dramatic decline.

And we may have seen the last of Phil Mickelson as a serious contender at the highest level. Since 1992, when he followed a sparkling 68 with a second-round 81 on his professional debut at Pebble Beach, the US Open's punishing set-up has been alien to a gambler's instincts. And one has to think that he no longer putts well enough to complete an elusive career Grand Slam on notoriously slick greens at Oakmont next year.

So, with Woods and Mickelson no longer the game's top rivals, we now have Rory McIlroy and Spieth, holders of all four Major titles between them. And in the way that golfing history repeats itself, it could be likened to the rivalry between Hogan and Sam Snead during the post-War era, though both men were then a lot more mature in years.

Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player then came along as the Big Three of the 1960s before the arrival of Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Johnny Miller. And all the while there was Nicklaus, even into the 1980s after Tom Watson had become his greatest rival.

It is easy to find parallels for McIlroy's game in Snead, Palmer and even Nicklaus, though our Holywood star has yet to acquire the course-management skills of the incomparable Bear. In pursuit of low numbers, however, McIlroy can generate the sort of excitement which made Ballesteros so special, especially during the 1980s.

But what of Spieth? Where are we to find his role-model, given that the player himself flatly refuses to discuss such aspects of his competitive make-up? Looking back through the last 40 years the players to whom he comes closest, in my view, are Ronan Rafferty and Nick Faldo, though there is little similarity to either of those two, in physique or warmth of personality.

At a young age, Rafferty had golfing instincts to match the American, even if he lacked Spieth's more soundly-based technique. And he was certainly as good a putter.

Most productive for Spieth, however, have been some key Faldo traits, not least his wonderful temperament in the heat of battle. Even at the tender age of 21 - he will be 22 on July 27 - opponents have come to recognise considerable steel beneath that boyish façade. While he may throw them a lifeline, as he did with a double-bogey on the 17th last Sunday, he won't throw the tournament.

And just as Faldo wasn't the longest, strongest, or most creative of players, Spieth's talents are more functional than flamboyant.

It was the notion of cold precision which drew Faldo to Hogan, to the extent that in the autumn of 1992, the year of his third Open triumph, the Englishman flew to Fort Worth to meet his hero. We're told they spent an hour talking at Hogan's haven of Shady Oaks and after lunch Faldo asked if the great man would come out to the practice ground and watch him hit some shots. Hogan declined.

Then Faldo asked if Hogan would share a secret with him, only to receive the curt reply: "What secret?" "I really want to win the US Open, and I would like you to tell me the secret to it." Perplexed, Hogan said: "Shoot a lower score than anybody else." Thinking this was said in jest, Faldo persisted, only to discover that Hogan was in dead earnest. "Just score lower than anybody else," he repeated, whereupon he excused himself and walked away.

Spieth, a fellow Texan, would be more Hogan's type. And given his newly-acquired status as the youngest winner of the US Open since Bobby Jones in 1923, it is revealing to note how the great amateur completed 72 holes on that occasion. After bogeys on the 16th and 17th, he double-bogeyed the last, prompting the disgusted outburst: "I didn't finish like a champion, I finished like a yellow dog."

Still, he recovered to beat Bobby Cruickshank by two strokes in the resultant 18-hole play-off, when it was the Scot who double-bogeyed the last.

From an Irish perspective, it is wonderful to have McIlroy heading what promises to be the next great rivalry in championship golf. And it is all the more fascinating for the fact that they are such contrasting talents.

Where Spieth is quietly methodical, McIlroy is thrillingly explosive, especially in his power-play from tee to green. Yet the putter is almost invariably the final arbiter, as Dustin Johnson discovered when having to endure the pain of three-putting the 72nd from no more than 12 feet last Sunday.

Given a penchant for throwing Majors, Johnson is already being compared with Greg Norman, which is to overlook the Shark's Open victories at Turnberry in 1986 and Royal St George's in 1993. But the point has a certain validity, not least for the ability of both men to dominate, only to be guilty of poor thinking when attempting to finish the job.

Johnson's problems on the 18th last Sunday had their roots several holes earlier. Having turned at six-under for the championship and two strokes clear of the field, he proceeded to squander four strokes over the next four holes, including a par at the driveable par-four 12th. Without those mistakes he would have been out of sight.

Though Spieth claims not to be thinking about the Grand Slam, it is certain to be forced into his consciousness by eager commentators. As it happens, his only experience of the Old Course at St Andrews was in 2011 when he played a casual round there, prior to the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen. "It's one of my favourite places in the world," he said with appropriate enthusiasm.

"I remember walking around the R&A clubhouse and seeing paintings of royalty playing golf, and it was dated 14-whatever, 1460 or something. I'm thinking our country was discovered in 1492 and they were playing golf here before anyone even knew that the Americas existed. That really amazed me and helped me realise exactly how special that place is."

You can almost sense him conditioning his mind to loving the place, just as he refused to join the general criticism of Chambers Bay. The bookmaking fraternity clearly respect his talents, given that he is now only 25/1 with Paddy Power to complete the Grand Slam. Mind you, when Woods won three Majors in 2000, he started that campaign at only 500/1 to scoop all four, only to fail at the first hurdle, Augusta National.

When the fear factor disappeared from El Tigre's game a few years ago, it was suggested that a general levelling-off at the top would make it virtually impossible for anyone to achieve the necessary dominance to challenge for the Grand Slam. Now we're being forced into a serious re-think on the issue.

Which is a telling pointer to the maturing talents of a truly remarkable young Texan.

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