News & Opinion

The next Tiger? It’s a futile search

It should be clear to anyone that Jordan Spieth won the Travelers Championship two weeks ago with something less than his best stuff. But do you remember not so very long ago when a certain superstar would tell us on occasion that he won with his B or even C game?

With that victory in Connecticut, Spieth became the second-youngest player to win 10 PGA Tour events, putting him smack in the middle between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the two best players ever.

It’s flattering for the 23-year-old Spieth to be mentioned in the same breath as the two GOATs, but we should do him a big favor and not compare his career to Woods’ or Nicklaus’. Especially, we should not measure Spieth – or any young star – against Woods because it’s so patently unfair.

No one knows whether Spieth will be the best of this generation’s young stars. He owns two major championships among 12 worldwide wins. Rory McIlroy has four majors among 22 wins around the globe, including 13 on the PGA Tour. Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and now Brooks Koepka have a major each. Rickie Fowler doesn’t have a major – yet – but has a Players Championship to his credit. And Justin Thomas might have the most promise.

However, you can bet that none of them will even sniff Woods’ 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour titles. It might even be that Woods will have more majors than this group – combined.

Which is exactly why we need to be cautious to compare these young players with one another and not against Woods. He set an impossibly high standard for this generation and played at a level that we might not see again, at least not in our lifetimes.

He hit shots that no one else could imagine even trying. He never was the greatest driver, but he didn’t get enough credit for pulling off trouble shots. For a long time, he had the best short game, maybe ever. He seemingly made every putt he had to make.

Woods dominated the game for a 10-year period like no one else, even Nicklaus. He was the No. 1 player in the world for 264 consecutive weeks in one stretch and 281 straight weeks in another. He once won six straight starts. And most remarkable of all, he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg.

As talented as this group of players is, you just can’t see anyone doing that.

In the 1980s, as Nicklaus’ career was winding down – the 1986 Masters notwithstanding – the popular golf parlor game was to find the “next Nicklaus.” The experts decided on Hal Sutton, and that hung a millstone around his neck that possibly never allowed Sutton to fulfill his considerable potential.

No one is looking for the “next Tiger” because there will never be another Tiger Woods.

But that doesn’t mean today’s top players are chopped liver. They are good – frighteningly good. And a couple of them might even wind up being great.

McIlroy is clearly the most talented. There is nothing in the game that he can’t do well. He drives it miles, is superb with his fairway woods and his irons are laser-like. But he’s the most mercurial. He has changed equipment a couple of times this year, and he’s currently going through putters like a man bewitched.

Johnson is the most physically and naturally gifted. He has worked diligently to become a good wedge player, which is vital for him because he hits a lot of wedges into par 4s. But he fades in and out.

Day is the streakiest but seems distracted. Fowler just can’t keep double bogeys off his card at the worst possible times. Thomas is pound-for-pound the longest player in the game, and once he wins a big one, there could be more. Koepka is the best athlete, and who knows what winning the U.S. Open will do for him.

But Spieth is the most dogged. And that in the end might push him over the line in front of the rest. He gets the most out of rounds more than anyone else. He turns 75s into 70s and 72s into 68s. He grinds over every shot no matter how seemingly inconsequential because he knows the importance of every stroke.

Does that remind you of anyone else? Oh, yeah, we said we weren’t going there, didn’t we?

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf