These are Spieth's tournament results going back to the Australian Open last November: 1st (by 6 shots), 1st (by 10 shots), tied for 7th, missed cut, tied for 7th, tied for 4th, tied for 17th, 1st (won in a playoff), 2nd, tied for 2nd (lost in a playoff), 1st (by 4 shots). Those are Tiger numbers, and following Spieth's wire-to-wire triumph in Augusta this April, Spieth and Woods are of course now the only golfers to win the Masters at age 21 and the only golfers to finish the Masters at 18 under par.
The easy comparisons ought to stop there. When Tiger destroyed the field by 12 shots in 1997, only 16 players finished under par. In 2015, 32 players finished under par, and Tom Kite's runner-up score of six under par in 1997 would only have tied for 12th this year. Simply put, Augusta National was far too easy in 2015: repeated overnight humidity kept the greens soft and slow and the fairways lush and forgiving, and too many miss-hit shots on holes 11, 12 and 15 perched on banks instead of bouncing into ponds. This was the Augusta National I dream of playing, not the Augusta National which ought to be testing the world's greatest golfers.
But if the golf course was this year's unexpected villain, Spieth proved himself to be a decidedly un-Tiger-like hero. Tiger could easily be from a different planet: from his Mike Douglas Show appearance at age two to his 15-shot US Open triumph at Pebble Beach to his current post-divorce soap opera, everything about him has felt otherworldly. Woods is and has always been a star and a celebrity as much as a golfer, and even now in the long autumn of his career, he cannot stop drawing attention to himself. I mean, through sheer force of will Woods conquered his chipping yips and overcame some of the most squirrely shots ever hit in Augusta–who else could duck-hook a tee shot less than 150 yards and still birdie the 13th, like Tiger did on Saturday?–to reach the first page of the third-day Masters leaderboard. And then, just when his driver deserted him and he seemed on the verge of Sunday afternoon irrelevancy, he hurt his hand swinging through a tree root and kept us breathlessly wondering if he'd finish his round, never mind crack the top ten. For how many more years will he keep transcending golf?
Tiger's way is not Spieth's way. I wrote about Spieth in my column 12 months ago, praising his demeanor as well as his skills, and somehow he seems even more grounded now than he did then. Spieth attended a Jesuit high school and grew up with a special needs sister, and he always seems to know–and act like–golf isn't as important as real life. He's kind and deferential to his elders, asking a reporter in Augusta if by "Ben" he was referring to "Mister Crenshaw", and when someone else commented last year about how humble he is, he responded, "Me speaking about humility is very difficult because that wouldn't be humility." What kind of 21-year-old multi-millionaire talks like this? Even his foibles seem endearing: whereas Tiger curses and bangs his clubs in frustration after missing a shot, when Spieth falls short of perfection he begs his golf ball for forgiveness, pleading with it to follow its original instructions.
During the 2015 Masters, more often than not the ball seemed to listen.
To whom should we compare Spieth, then, if not Tiger? Rory McIlroy, now the only golfer above Spieth in the world rankings, offers an interesting counterpoint. McIlroy is just as charming and likeable as Spieth in many ways, but unlike Spieth he tends to act his age: some of his off-course decisions–the high-profile engagement and break-up with Caroline Wozniacki, the legal battle with his former management company, even his occasionally alarming candor in the press room–betray a youthful immaturity. On the course, McIlroy may be marginally more talented and noticeably more powerful, but Spieth's relentless consistency probably makes up the difference. They certainly have the makings of a great rivalry, and with the likes of Adam Scott, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and many others at, or yet to reach, their primes, we could be on the cusp of another golden era of competitive golf.
In historical terms, I'm tempted to compare Spieth to Jack Nicklaus, another well-grounded and mature-beyond-his-years product of middle America who won majors early and often in his career: Spieth feels more to me like Nicklaus' proper heir than Woods or McIlroy ever have. But a better comparison may be with Pete Sampras, whose youthful maturity and professionalism contrasted with showy, loud-mouthed stars like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and the long-haired version of Andre Agassi when he burst into the tennis world. Sampras set a standard which Agassi eventually embraced and others like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic ultimately followed. If Spieth continues to grow as a person and a golfer and can remain a star who doesn't need to act like one, he might be able move the world of golf away from its dependency on Tiger Woods and toward the ideal of Bobby Jones.
After Spieth sank his final putt and clinched his first major championship, he did what many young tournament winners do: he went into the gallery and hugged his parents and the other members of his family waiting behind the green. Then he did something very few golfers ever do: he returned to the green and applauded the crowd, thanking them for being there and acknowledging their rapturous reception.
Jordan Spieth doesn't transcend golf–he is golf, exactly as it was meant to be played. Long may he reign at the top of the game.
Darren Kilfara formerly worked for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer's Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student-golfer at the University of St. Andrews. His latest book is a novel, Do You Want Total War?.