What Jordan Spieth is trying to do now in golf – win all four major tournaments in one year – has not been done. Ever. He is in rare company even to be as close as he is, and his out-of-nowhere pursuit has electrified a sport that, ever since Tiger Woods’ big fade, has needed the juice.
Spieth chasing history this week in the ongoing British Open continues a remarkable year all-round for athletes who go it alone, not surrounded by teams. Stars in individual sports stand alone, but rarely have they stood apart the way they are in 2015.
In thoroughbred racing American Pharoah won that sport’s first Triple Crown since 1978, with jockey Victor Espinoza becoming the oldest rider (43) and first Hispanic (he’s Mexican) to achieve horse racing’s ultimate pinnacle.
In women’s tennis Serena Williams from Palm Beach Gardens is one major from completing her sport’s first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. (No man has done it since Rod Laver in 1969). Only the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 31, stands between Serena and her slice of immortality.
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I might even slip in a nod to boxing, which this year enjoyed its most anticipated fight in years with Mayweather-Pacquiao, although that bout did not prove worthy of the hype or the wait. Besides, history was not in play there the way it was for Espinoza and Pharoah, or still is Williams and Spieth.
Williams we have admired and watched be great for years – ever since we first saw her as a brash teen on Key Biscayne in 1998 – but Spieth bursts across golf like a meteor, the biggest breakout star in all of sports.
He is 21. I wear belts older than he is.
American golf hasn’t been this energized since a young man named Eldrick, audaciously nicknamed Tiger, riveted the nation’s imagination by winning The Masters in record fashion in 1997, at the same age Spieth is today.
Now, of course, at 39, Woods struggles to recapture his former greatness. He last won a major in 2008. Once it seemed inevitable he would surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Now the debate is whether Tiger will forever be stuck on 14.
Woods remains compelling, but for the wrong reasons. Once he was magnetic for his sheer dominance; now we are drawn to the soap opera of a man felled by an infidelity scandal striving to remain relevant in the sport he helped redefine. Once Tiger was the ultimate favorite; now he is the unlikely underdog.
Into the Tiger void bursts Jordan Alexander Spieth of Dallas, a Texas Longhorn who blipped onto the radar of golf aficionados last year but has won mainstream, beyond-golf stardom in ’15.
He won The Masters in April, tying the 72-hole record Tiger set in ’97.
He won the U.S. Open in June, its youngest winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.
He began this week’s British Open with a 5-under par 67 on Thursday on the Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, despite never before having played a competitive round there, and despite appearing in last week’s John Deere Classic (which he won).
Golfers serious about the British rarely play the week before, and Spieth has been roundly second-guessed for doing so. Why did he? Because he had committed to it and wanted to honor his word. That’s how young Spieth is: He didn’t know that top golfers are supposed to come up with convenient minor injuries to finagle their schedule.
Spieth’s 67 has him only two strokes off the lead, although high winds are forecast to bring brutal conditions Friday.
Hey, who said gunning for the first Grand Slam in PGA Tour history was supposed to be easy?
Should he somehow win the British, his play for history would be Aug. 13-16 in the PGA Championship.
Just getting this far makes Spieth the talk of golf, maybe all of sports.
He is the first man since Tiger in 2002 to win a year’s first two majors.
Ben Hogan in 1953 was the last golfer to win a year’s first three.
The unofficially nominated “Next Tiger” is nothing like the original.
Woods wowed galleries with his power off the tee, and with his aura and blood-red shirts on a Sunday. Spieth is an average driver for distance, mastering a course with a scalpel, not a cannon. He admitted Wednesday in Scotland, with a smile, “I don’t look like an intimidating person.”
Maybe partly because of that he is a young man America could grow to embrace. Oh, and if you want a human-interest angle, he started a foundation to benefit special-needs kids because his sister Ellie, 14, has a neurological disorder related to autism.
“It helps put things in perspective that I’m lucky,” he said recently. “Being Ellie’s brother humbles me every day of my life.”
Spieth doesn’t look or sound much like somebody chasing golf history.
Sure plays like it, though.