Monday, April 13, 2015

A Masterful arrival

You don't judge what just happened among the pines and azaleas by the kid in the green jacket. You judge it by the barely-beyond-a-kid who finished fourth.

Rory McIlroy is still in his mid-20s, but he's the world's best golfer, and nothing he did the last four days will change that an iota. The man from Northern Ireland knocked down Augusta National and took its lunch money, shooting four sub-par rounds and going minus-10 on Saturday and Sunday. His 72-hole total of  276 would have won last year's Masters by four strokes, and would have won or tied in 15 of the last 20 Masters.

And yet.

And yet, he wasn't even a dust eddy in Jordan Spieth's mirrors Sunday.

 McIlroy's 276 left him six strokes adrift of the 21-year-old Texan, and it would have been seven strokes had Spieth dunked that 5-footer for par on the 72nd hole. That would have left him a preposterous minus-19 for the tournament, breaking the record of another phenom, Tiger Woods, who announced himself to the world with a minus-18 in 1997 no one thought would be approached again.

But Spieth matched it, and did so on a longer and tougher course than Woods faced, because Augusta's response to Woods' minus-18 was to Tigerize the place. And so now will come the presumptive chorus that forever waits to anoint the Next Whatever the way a small boy waits for the bathroom, hopping from foot to foot as his back teeth float.

It is too early yet to do that to Spieth, to call him the next Tiger as twilight still gathers around the original Tiger. But the career trajectory is very much the same,  and so at the very least we can say he's gone to the front rank of a generation of young golfers as deep and talented as any in memory.

American golf, as fellow American star Dustin Johnson said Sunday, is in a very good place right now. And not just American golf, but all of golf.

Consider, for instance, what Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose had to be thinking Sunday afternoon. Both of them finished at 14-under. Both of them shrugged off all those Sunday gremlins that lurk around Amen Corner and various other environs and put up small numbers -- Lefty a 3-under 69, Rose a 2-under 70. And yet they couldn't lay a finger on Spieth, who became the first man to lead the Masters wire-to-wire in 39 years.

It was the sort of soul-crushing deal we used to see from Tiger back in the day. And it reminded us again that, while Tiger remains the one reliable draw in golf, his day is largely past. His mystique is still there -- how many other guys who tie for 17th will ever get the kind of air and ink he did? -- but it's driven more by nostalgia now than current events.

The game has moved on. The Next Whatever has arrived. And if its name is not yet Jordan Spieth, it's only because it answers, and will continue to answer, to a lot of names.

Spieth, for now, first among them.


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