PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. | Jordan Spieth can’t seem to win a tournament without hearing six words that only raise expectations, if not hyperbole.
“The youngest player since Tiger Woods.”
Comparisons require context, though it’s still good company to keep.
The latest example was Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which Spieth happily turned into a most boring finish. He led by six shots going into the final round, made 14 straight pars at one point, closed with a 70 and won by four. Spieth jokingly apologized for not producing any highlights, except for a 30-foot birdie putt that didn’t matter. All he really cared about was winning.
It was the ninth PGA Tour victory for the 23-year-old Texan. That made him — wait for it — the youngest player since Woods to win nine times on tour. Woods was 23 years, 5 months when he won his ninth PGA Tour event at the 1999 Memorial. Spieth is a little more than a month behind.
Even if Spieth were to win this week at Riviera, he still would be a few weeks older than when Woods captured his 10th tour victory, and catching up to Woods after that would be unlikely. Woods won eight PGA Tour events in 1999, including four straight to close out the year.
Numbers alone don’t paint the full picture.
Pebble Beach was Spieth’s 100 start on the PGA Tour as a pro, so he is winning at a 9 percent clip. In Woods’ 100th start on the PGA Tour, he won for the 28th time.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to win at the same percentage that Tiger won,” Spieth said. “So that’s a bit different.”
Even so, he said he is more comfortable hearing comparisons with Woods than he was a few years ago.
Coming off a 2015 season in which he won the Masters and the U.S. Open and came as close as anyone to the Grand Slam, Spieth began 2016 with an eight-shot victory at Kapalua. He said then he was able to keep grounded by looking at the careers of Woods (79 victories, 14 majors) and Phil Mickelson (42 victories, five majors). Are the comparisons fair? Not necessarily.
“But at the same time, I’m not here to tell you guys how to do your job,” he said. “You don’t tell me how to do mine you just ask me about mine. So you guys can do whatever you want. I think less of that than I have in the past, and it’s an honor. It really is an honor. Getting to where you’re the first guy, even including Tiger, to do something is maybe the next goal.
“But that,” he added with a smile, “might be pretty hard.”
Spieth has been hearing comparisons with Woods since he was chosen for the Presidents Cup team in 2013, at age 20 the youngest American on a team. Two years later, he was the youngest Masters champion since Woods and tied his 72-hole record at Augusta National. His runner-up finish in the 2015 PGA Championship elevated him to the top of the world ranking, making him the youngest player since Woods to be No. 1.
By the end of 2015, his aggregate 54-under-par in the majors was one shot better than what Woods did in 2000. That, too, requires context. Woods won two of those majors by a combined 23 shots.
The comparisons, whether they involved Spieth, Rory McIlroy or anyone else, seem like a stretch because of the consistent and relentless dominance of Woods.
Spieth enters the conversation again because he is hitting the ball great and his putting is starting to come around. Spieth’s bad weeks with the putter are still better than most players’ good weeks. And still fresh are the memories of what he did two years ago the Masters, the U.S. Open, the FedEx Cup, all the awards.
But it’s only February. The Masters is nearly two months away. The majors are the measure.
And remember, Spieth is still No. 6 in the world. That’s what impresses him about Woods. Spieth’s longest spell at No. 1 was a mere 20 weeks. Since losing the top spot to Jason Day last March, he has slipped to No. 6. Still ahead of him are Day, McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Hideki Matsuyama.
Woods had no challengers and still played as though he had something to prove. That’s what led Spieth to refer to Woods as “underrated.”
“You almost need that next level, that next person in front of you,” he said. “That’s what’s amazing about what Tiger’s done with the game and his ability to stay there for years and years and years. … As a player who has reached that and is trying to get back there, I think he’s underrated, which is incredible to say, because he’s rated the greatest of all time.”
For Spieth, repeating the kind of season he had in 2015 is a tall order. Keeping pace with Woods will be even tougher.
“I’m not sure what my standard is yet,” Spieth said. “I think it takes maybe a decade to figure that out.”
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