Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 13, 2014

Stumble For The Next Tiger; Cannonball For The First Lexi

When 20-year old Jordan Spieth made back-to-back birdies at Augusta National’s 14th and 15th holes on Saturday to move to 5-under par in the third round of the Masters, the media drumbeat began, led by the television coverage on CBS. A short while later, when leader Bubba Watson’s tee shot on the par-3 16th flew long and the 2012 champion was unable to get up and down for par, he and Spieth were tied for the lead. From that moment on it seemed like scarcely five minutes went by without the network reminding viewers that Spieth would supplant Tiger Woods as the youngest winner in Masters’ history.

When they weren’t speaking in reverential tones about the enormity of that potential feat, the announcers were agog over the even more remarkable fact that Spieth was making his first appearance at the tournament. First-time participants simply don’t win the Masters, because it takes time to learn the nuances of Augusta National’s hills and valleys and steeply contoured greens. That bit of conventional wisdom is supported by history. Horton Smith won the inaugural event in 1934, and Gene Sarazen won the following year after skipping the first Masters. Since then Fuzzy Zoeller’s victory in a playoff in 1979 has been the only one by a Masters rookie. For a course that appears to be so wide open the venue for every season’s first men’s major is a links where being in the right position means everything. For the first three days Spieth, who turned professional just sixteen months ago, played the course with the patience and aplomb of a seasoned veteran.

It wasn’t just Jim Nantz and company who got a bit carried away over the meaning of a potential Spieth victory. The talking heads on the Golf Channel’s post-round coverage Saturday night all but had him fitted for a green jacket. A column on Spieth in Sunday’s New York Times bore the headline “Search for Tiger Woods’s Successor Skips a Generation.” In his piece Bill Pennington at least had the good sense to caution that “Anointing Spieth as the next anything in golf is premature at best and abject folly at worst.” But he also marveled at the young golfer’s ability and composure.

Make no mistake; Jordan Spieth’s performance at this year’s Masters was impressive. On Sunday he rolled in a birdie putt on the par-5 2nd hole to move to 6-under and take sole possession of first place. Two holes later his blast from the front bunker at the par-3 4th found the bottom of the cup for another birdie. After a bogey at the 5th Spieth rolled in two more birdie putts at the 6th and 7th holes. As he stood on the tee of the uphill par-5 8th the 20-year old Masters rookie led his playing partner Watson by two strokes.

But the tournament is 72 holes, and they play all 18 on Sunday. Twenty minutes later Spieth and Watson were on the top of the hill by Augusta National’s clubhouse, ready to start the back nine. In the short time it took the final pairing to play just two holes, their roles had been reversed. Spieth’s chip to the 8th green stopped far short of the hole, and his first putt was no better. He walked off the green with a three-putt bogey, tied for the lead after Watson rolled in a short birdie try. On the 9th Spieth misjudged the green’s false front, leading to another bogey. When Watson sunk his curling birdie putt from above the hole the giant leader boards around the premises reflected a four shot swing in the space of two holes.

The old saw is that the Masters doesn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday afternoon. But this year the tournament was effectively over when Spieth flared his approach into a bunker on the 10th. He slammed his iron into the turf, a sure sign that the ethereal composure that had carried him to the lead was gone. While he saved par at the 10th to pull to within one when Watson made bogey, a tee shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th all but ended his chances. In the end Bubba Watson could enjoy the walk up the 18th fairway with a three shot lead and a second Masters title.

It’s a popular victory by a fan favorite with his pink driver, extraordinary length off the tee and ability to shape shots seemingly at will. Jordan Spieth still made history of a sort, becoming the youngest runner-up in the tournament’s history; and while he may have come up short, his even par round of 72 on Sunday was hardly a collapse. Still a major championship and the title of the “next Tiger” will have to wait, at least until the U.S. Open in June.

Which doesn’t mean that youth was not served at the season’s first major. Just one week earlier, 19-year old Lexi Thompson began the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA’s first prestige event, tied for the lead like Spieth at the Masters. Both Thompson and Michelle Wie began the final 18 at 10-under par, two shots better than Se Ri Pak. Thompson was aggressive from the start, pulling driver out of the bag while Wie played a more conservative game. On hole after hole the teenager was 30 to 40 yards longer off the tee, setting up easier approaches. The result was four birdies on the front nine and a comfortable lead by the time the pair made the turn. It was a lead that allowed Thompson to focus on making pars over the final nine when neither Wie nor anyone else in the field could mount a charge, just as Watson did one week later.

The eventual three-shot victory was the first major and fourth LPGA Tour win for Thompson, who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year old amateur and became the then-youngest winner of a LPGA event in 2011. She celebrated with the traditional leap with caddie and friends into Poppie’s Pond next to the 18th green, Thompson’s cannonball outdone by her caddie’s full flip into the water.

Of course millions were watching the Masters on Sunday, while the Golf Channel’s coverage of the Nabisco one week earlier drew a decidedly smaller audience. And the first women’s major was played in the wake of Golf Digest’s announcement that for the first time in six years a woman would appear solo on the magazine’s cover; but that woman would not be Inbee Park, winner of three consecutive majors last season, nor Stacy Lewis, the first American to win the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average in two decades. In a classic case of tone-deaf idiocy Golf Digest picked the start of the LPGA’s first major to announce that model Paulina Gretzky would grace the cover in a cheesecake photo better suited for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

Still the common theme coming out of the first major for both tours is the inevitable emergence of a new generation of stars. At Augusta big-hitting Bubba was able to hold off Jordan, for now; while in California nobody was going to stop Lexi. The kids are coming, and the kids have shown that they can play. Just don’t expect Golf Digest to notice that some of the most talented kids happen to be girls.

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Responses

  1. I guess you told them! But I totally agree.


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