Sporting Life

At 22, great putter Jordan Spieth lights up golf in Tiger-less time

Inevitability in sport is Usain Bolt three-quarters through a 100m race, Novak Djokovic confronting a crucial break point and Jordan Spieth striking a 15-foot putt. Stuff just happens. The unreasonable becomes commonplace. Of course certainty cannot exist in sport but they offer the illusion it can.

You know putting is hard when there is an instruction book on the subject whose title includes the word "Bible". And anyone who has held a trembling flatstick will confess that solving Fermat's Last Theorem is far less perplexing than negotiating a four-foot downhill putt.

As Chi Chi Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican who first swung a club made from a guava tree limb, said: "I've heard people say putting is 50 per cent technique and 50 per cent mental. I really believe it is 50 per cent technique and 90 per cent positive thinking, see, but that adds up to 140 per cent, which is why nobody is 100 per cent sure how to putt."

Except Spieth these days.

One look at his numbers tells a terrific tale - most birdies (28) at the Masters, most birdies tied (18) at the US Open, No. 1 in putting average. But one look he got on Sunday says even more.

Spieth is not yet changing golf as Woods did but, with Jason Day and McIlroy, he is helping to save it. Change means more sponsors, better TV ratings, higher prize money and to have such an effect requires time. But to save golf is to ensure it doesn't become inconsequential.

At the par-three 11th hole at the Tour Championship, Henrik Stenson is two shots behind Spieth. He is three feet from the hole, Spieth is 46 feet, 7 inches away. Johnny Miller the incomparable says: "It's going to break more than he thinks." No, no, Johnny, putts go exactly where Spieth thinks and this does.

Stenson looks at the ball going in, then at Spieth, not with a "who is this guy?" look but more a ruefully-smiling "God, not this guy again" look. He then taps Spieth on the shoulder for these men know how to win but also to lose.

The American is a balding mix of decent and dangerous. On one hand, aware that cameras are on him when he plays a shot, he ensures his comments are PG-rated. On the other hand he's so intense that you can hear his desperation when he talks about his missed cuts at The Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship.

"I missed two cuts in a row, had never done that, lost the No.1 ranking. I was watching Jason Day just dominate golf. It was frustrating." He, understated and yet unflappable, didn't like it, so he fixed it. He went early to the Tour Championship and then summoned his game as if talent is at his command.

No one wants to be as rude as Donald Trump was to Barack Obama, but maybe we should look at this kid's birth certificate. Not for place of birth, but year. For any age he's gifted; for 22, he's plain astonishing.

But here is Spieth's challenge: nothing to do with the distance he drives (No. 78) but everything to do with how far he goes to stays normal. Because presidents will call and sponsors demand. A speech today buddy, a lunch tomorrow mate, a clinic in between bro. Everybody wants the champ to give them something - a selfie, a quote - but you can't stay a champ if you don't give yourself to the game. As Rory McIlroy told this writer in 2012: "People want you to do more things and you have to learn how to say no."

Spieth has to plan for greatness, shrug off expectation, flick away exaggeration. He has won five titles this year which is stunning but Tiger Woods did that 10 times (nine titles once, eight titles twice). Spieth has won two Majors this year which is extraordinary but last year McIlroy did the same and from mid-2007 to end-2008, Padraig Harrington won three of six Majors. The world wants to make heroes fast, but greatness is a slow ride.

Spieth is not yet changing golf as Woods did but, with Jason Day and McIlroy, he is helping save it. Change means more sponsors, better TV ratings, higher prize money and to have such an effect requires time. But to save golf is to ensure it doesn't become inconsequential.

Shorn of its most commanding personality, a sport dims. Badminton is flat without Lin Dan. Tennis will list when Rafa-Roger leave. Heavyweight boxing has lurched since Mike Tyson. A Tiger-less tour promised to turn golf into a weekly travel show to pretty locations and not much more, but golf's Three Tenors are creating their own furious opera. Woods will always be missed but soon he will matter less.

When Leon Spinks dethroned Muhammad Ali, he humbly said, "I'm not the greatest. I'm only the latest." This is what Spieth is to golf, new, driven, fascinating. And more interesting this year than Bolt, 29, or Djokovic, 28, because he's 22, and announcing his talent, and there is no sight as moving as great promise translating itself into the great act.

And yet greatness in sport lies only in the athlete repeating the great act. It is how we have calculated Bolt's hunger and determined Djokovic's ambition. The word that will be thrown at Spieth is one usually reserved for musical acts, but since he constantly sings to his ball he will know what it is. Encore, will be the cry. Once more. Becoming great is almost over. Staying great is about to begin.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'At 22, great putter lights up golf in Tiger-less time'. Print Edition | Subscribe