Last week, during the Open Championship, rumors circulated that golf’s governing bodies were beginning to reconsider the impact distance is having on the game. For years, elders in golf have railed against technology that has been promoting length as the most essential skill.
It could be argued that the distance revolution began exactly 20 years ago at the 1997 Masters, when Tiger Woods stunned the world with a display of power and finesse rarely seen before. So dominant was Tiger from the teeing ground that the term “Tiger proofing” soon popped up in golf conversations. That euphemism meant lengthening courses to try to negate Woods distance advantage.
In the 20 years since, an army of Woods bombers has taken over the game, and “proofing” may be reaching its breaking point. The U.S. Open at Erin Hills stretched that course to over 7800 yards each day, and it still became the play toy of winner Brooks Koepka and others. It’s hard to determine just how many golfers Tiger drew to the game, but there’s no disputing that today’s generation of Tour professionals grew up seeing his power game and used him as their model
That conversation is even more relevant now, because the stage at this moment belongs to the first successful ‘pre-Woods-type talent’ in the post-Woods era.
Jordan Spieth is a time warp in the game. He plays at an extraordinary level in a fashion built, not from the tee, but from the fairway. A knowledgeable friend likened him to a young Tom Watson. He wins despite the driver, his most challenging club. For three days Spieth was a high-definition version of Watson’s last major win at Birkdale in 1983. On Sunday the young Texan made a statement to the golf world and climbed higher on the podium with his Claret Jug.
Collapsing early and in danger of total destruction on the 13th hole, he fashioned perhaps the most historic bogey in Open history and constructed a bipolar finish with three birdies and an eagle in his last five holes. In a galaxy of young stars on the PGA Tour, Spieth defined his own solar system.
With three majors and 11 professional wins before he turns 24 this week, Spieth trails only Rory McIlroy among the current generation of elite players for career wins and majors. Forget laying his career alongside the Woods timeline; he’s not the next Tiger. But he may turn out to be that unique generational talent the game has been waiting for.
The question is can a player with Norman Rockwell wholesomeness and throwback skills drag the game back toward its origins. If Woods was golf’s version of the Beatles, can a lesser showman have the same sort of impact?
When Tiger Woods hit the spotlight, he was accompanied by his huckster father, Earl, the prototype for today’s LaVar Ball. In contrast Spieth brought with him June and Ward Cleaver parents, a brother playing basketball in the Ivy League and a devotion to his developmentally challenged younger sister, Ellie.
When Tiger won at Augusta, he already had more than $100 million dollars in endorsement deals signed and stowed away. Nike was firing up their sports marketing machine, and Woods would become their poster child. When Spieth won at Augusta, at an identical age, he had a lone commercial on the air discouraging texting while driving.
The Woods effect even changed the equipment industry. Companies like TaylorMade successfully built their business model around the driver. Tiger should be entitled to a royalty from every driver manufacturer for clubs sold in the last 20 years. But those same equipment companies saw the rest of the bag (except the putter) as an afterthought. Tiger never sold a set of irons.
How many majors, if any, would Spieth have to amass to reverse the tide of length in the game? Or does a Sunday like he had in Southport juice the debate? When he won at Augusta in 2015, the top social media hit for the club that week didn’t involve the 21-year-old winner. It was for One Direction’s Niall Horan, who caddied for Rory McIlroy in the par-3 contest.
On day two at Royal Birkdale last week, Spieth was caught on camera uttering an expletive as his ball was in the air. When asked about it afterwards, he blushed in giving his response. Is Jordan Spieth too much the student council president to spin the dials in today’s media? Will the way he plays get noticed?
There is a certain irony that people who play golf recreationally never had a prayer of physically playing the game as Tiger and his Tour offspring have done. Many of those same everyday golfers could realistically look at Spieth’s game and try to emulate his approach.
If the R&A and the USGA ever try to shorten the distance to restore a level of moderation to the sport, they have the role model for what golf would look like. R&A President Martin Slumbers introduced Spieth as the Champion Golfer of the World. Can he become the game’s champion golfer for the next generation?
Spieth was asked afterward what it was like to be mentioned in the company of people like Nicklaus and others, given his youthful accomplishments. “To be in that company no doubt is incredible, and I certainly appreciate it. But I am very careful as to what it means going forward because what those guys have done transcended the sport. And in no way shape or form do I think I am near that whatsoever. So it’s a good start but there is a long way to go.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.