Augusta, Ga. – The public’s thirst for the next big thing is so unquenchable that often the thirst persists even before the previous big thing has departed.
The music world began searching for The Next Bob Dylan while Dylan was still in his 20s, preceding another fistful of decades in which he toured and produced original music.
The golf world began searching for The Next Tiger Woods shortly after he hugged his father on the 18th green at Augusta National in 1997, and Woods remains relevant if puzzling after a sometimes-promising performance at the 2015 Masters.
Jordan Spieth’s future is unknowable, but one thing is certain: He is not The Next Tiger Woods. Woods in ’97 was a one-off: an ethnically diverse young golfer of almost unprecedented ability who changed the way courses were designed, the way apparel was worn, the way clubs were purchased, the way golfers attacked pins, the way the game appealed to the young.
Spieth will not emulate Woods even if he mimics his career accomplishments. Spieth hits it shorter and straighter and elicits memories of the era when most golfers came from well-off families and private schools. The primary similarity between the two is clutch putting, and Woods displayed that advantage for more than a decade, while Spieth is just beginning his career.
If Spieth proves to be great, his career could be more interesting than Woods’ in one respect. Woods never found a worthy rival in his prime. If Spieth proves to be great, he could have many, with the leading candidate being another phenom, Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy, 25, needs only a Masters victory to claim the career grand slam. Spieth, 21, could move ahead of Woods’ pace for major championships if he wins another in the next two years.
McIlroy will be Europe’s best player on Ryder Cups for the foreseeable future. Spieth could quickly become the captain of the American team.
McIlroy ranks first in the world. Spieth ranks second, and was expressing his desire to overtake McIlroy even before he won the Masters.
Both are likable, polite, fit, ambitious and young. This could be the rivalry that defines golf for years.
“Rory has got four majors and numerous wins,” Spieth said after putting on the green jacket. “That’s something I can still only dream about. I’ll never hit it as far as he does, and I have to make up for that somewhere else. I look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with him a couple times in the near future and see if we can battle it out and test our games.”
Golf hasn’t had many lasting rivalries. Jack Nicklaus encountered a half-dozen suitors without altering his career path. Woods obliterated most of his.
Most interesting, Spieth seems to want a rivalry with McIlroy rather than the other way around.
“It’s great for him,” McIlroy said. “He’s been playing great for a 21-year-old, he’s way more mature than I was at 21 and a hell of a golfer and a great person as well. So I’m really happy for him.”
The key to the budding rivalry could be desire. Spieth’s goals, like Woods’ when he was 21, could not be more ambitious or clear. The week before the Masters, McIlroy lent some doubt to his career goals.
“I would be dishonest if I said my love of golf now is as big as it once was,” McIlroy said. “I don’t love golf as much as when it was just pure joy to get the course to play. When I was a kid, if I spent a day away from the game, I couldn’t wait to get back. Now I can’t wait for a week off.”
Spieth’s zest for golf and its traditions is almost too good to be true. McIlroy is the one who has slept through morning alarms and tossed clubs into ponds.
Over the next two or three decades, they will duel in Ryder Cups and, we can hope, on major championship Sundays.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib firstname.lastname@example.org