Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2015

Records Fall, And A New Hero Rises

The PGA Tour’s wraparound season reached its six month mark this week. The European Tour schedule began in early December, and the women of the LPGA have been competing for more than two months. Still for all but its most devoted adherents, golf’s season doesn’t begin each year until this week, when the eyes of sports fans everywhere turn to Augusta National. That’s in part because the Masters coincides with the time when golf courses are just opening in much of the country, in part because the tournament is the first men’s major of the year, and in part because few televised sporting events are as visually spectacular.

With the remnants of a harsh winter still delaying play for many weekend golfers, the game has scarcely been top of mind. A procession of tournament winners largely lacking in star power through the Tour’s West Coast and Florida swings did little to attract attention, but expectations are always high for the game’s big names when they make the drive up Magnolia Lane. And with the azaleas in riotous bloom and a light breeze whispering through the towering Georgia pines, the CBS broadcast with its traditional limited commercial interruption served up the usual visual feast.

But if golf for many doesn’t begin until the Masters, then the corresponding axiom about the tournament itself is that the Masters doesn’t truly begin until the back nine on Sunday. The first adage may have been as true as ever this year, but thanks to Jordan Spieth the second one was left sounding like a quaint old expression from another time. In fact, it was at the beginning of the back nine on Sunday that the 21-year old Texan emphatically ended what little drama remained about the tournament’s outcome.

Spieth began the day with a four stroke lead over Justin Rose, and despite a fast start with birdies on each of Augusta’s first two holes, the Englishman was unable to reduce that margin by more than one. A birdie by Spieth on the 8th followed by a three putt bogey by Rose on the 9th increased the lead to five at the turn. Then on the 495 yard downhill 10th hole, the leader split the fairway with a 3-wood off the tee. His iron approach from 183 yards landed safely in the middle of the green and rolled to the left fringe, 23 feet from the hole. Spieth’s putt never wavered from its line, falling into the heart of the cup as so many of his rolls on Augusta’s greens did for four straight days. The birdie on the 10th increased his lead to six shots with just eight holes remaining. Short of twisting an ankle on the hilly links Jordan Spieth had a first major title firmly in his grasp.

That birdie was the 26th of the week for Spieth, a new tournament record eclipsing the 25 recorded by Phil Mickelson in 2001. He added two more on the way home, making the new official record 28 birdies in one tournament. It was but one of a number of milestones for Spieth. His opening round of 8-under 64, which gave him the first round lead by three shots over a foursome of competitors, made him the youngest first round leader in Masters history. When he followed that with a 66 on Friday he set the tournament mark for 36 holes at 14-under par. Saturday’s round of 2-under par 70 moved him to 16-under, the tournament record for 54 holes. On Sunday he became the first golfer to reach 19-under par during a Masters when he birdied the par-5 15th hole. After making bogey at the last his final score of 18-under 270 tied the tournament record set by Tiger Woods in 1997.

Woods’s win was the first of his four Masters titles, and with it he set the mark as the youngest champion. Spieth, who was three years old when Woods established that record, is now the second youngest winner. He’s also just the fourth champion to win in his second appearance at a course where experience at reading the greens and learning the tricks of Amen Corner’s swirling winds is thought to be critical. Spieth’s victory also makes him just the fifth player to win wire-to-wire, and the first to do so since Raymond Floyd in 1976.

That’s one impressive list of accomplishments. Perhaps it was inevitable then that even as it was being put together there was a rush on the part of the golfing media to anoint Spieth as golf’s next colossus. After Friday’s second round, Mike Purkey, the deputy editor of the digital golf magazine Global Golf Post, wrote “If anyone is to track Spieth down, either in this major or any other, the bunch of them had best get busy.” Given Woods’s recent history of injuries and with Mickelson soon to turn 45, there has been concern about the lack of American star power to compete with world number one Rory McIlroy. But conceding all major championships for the foreseeable future to Spieth does seem just a bit over the top.

Still, what has happened since last year, when in his first appearance at the Masters Spieth was tied with Bubba Watson for the 54 hole lead before eventually finishing second, is that he has learned how to win. Followers of the Tour can recall tournaments where Spieth was in the running until a bit of misfortune clearly got under his skin, and things quickly went from bad to worse. But then he triumphed at the Australian Open last November, firing a final round 63 when no one else broke 70. Last month he took the Valspar Championship in a playoff for his second PGA Tour title. Just last week he finished second at the Shell Houston Open. So he arrived at Augusta in solid form, ready to play a course that suits his eye, as his performance last year clearly showed.

Now the quickly maturing Spieth moves to number two in the world behind McIlroy, whose closing 66 was Sunday’s best round and vaulted him into fourth place on the final leader board, behind a tie for second between Rose and a revitalized Mickelson. The prospect of the 21-year old from Dallas and the 25-year old from County Down dueling for the next decade or more should hold plenty of appeal for golf fans. Perhaps even more so than the silly notion that either one of them is going to win every time out.

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