These are strange and wonderful times in the world of professional golf, when even making history doesn’t guarantee the most definitive recognition the sport has to offer.
Step forward Jordan Spieth double major champion and all-American hero, just two of the many accolades that surely make him the most unlikely recipient of anyone’s sympathy. And yet there stands the young Texan, his face darkened by the shadow of the man who threatens to steal his crown.
Jordan Spieth, 2015 PGA Tour Player of the Year? Eh, not so fast.
Once upon a time – or to reference a more specific time frame, two months ago, Spieth was the greatest thing since Tiger Woods in his prime. Two major victories – the Masters and then US Open, a very near thing at the Open and a second-place finish at the PGA Championship ranked as one of the greatest single-season performances in the Majors, placing Spieth in the rarified company of Woods and Ben Hogan.
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And then Jason Day to win this weekend happened. For years the Australian was all startling potential and middling success. Then he left a putt short on the final green at the Open Championship which might otherwise have earned a place in the play-off eventually won by Zach Johnson. It was one of the life-changing setbacks that sets a man on a different course.
After his St Andrews disappointment, Day vowed he would never leave another putt short, if not literally then certainly metaphorically. True to his own words, he has since won four out of six PGA tournaments, a run which started at the Canadian Open the week after the Open and continued through to the BMW Championship on Sunday, which ended with the Australian on 20-under, six ahead of the field.
Along the way, Day dismantled not only the fields but also the one great certainty of the early summer, also known as the Jordan Spieth Era. Off the back of successive wins in the Majors, the American was anointed the best player in the world and a shoo-in for the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year, the award most coveted the by the players themselves because it is awarded on the vote of the players.
I still think it’s him (Spieth), Day said when asked on Sunday about the Player of the Year award.
There speaks a polite young man, confident in the knowledge that words carry very little weight at this late stage, what matters is one final performance on the golf course.
Despite the $18 million ($8 million in prize money, $10 million bonus to the winner of the FedEx Cup) the Tour Championship, the final event of the the PGA Tour season, has had a strangely muted feel over the years, in large part because the field is restricted to just 30 players, half of whom look exhausted and desperate to go home for a rest after a long season. This year’s tournament, starting on Thursday, promises to reverse that trend.
The money scarcely matters to the very top players What matters is pride and honour. What matters is world No. 1 ranking.
Day currently holds the spot but Spieth (above), currently No. 3, and Rory McIlroy , ranked second, are lurking. Both are in the field this week, no doubt nursing somewhat bruised egos and simmering determination.
Spieth, in particular, has looked a little sour in the recent weeks. There is a rumour doing the rounds that he was so taken aback by the quality of the Australian’s golf when they were paired together in the final round of the PGA Championship that he has determined to change his game, not least to find some more yards off the tee.
That would be a dangerous course, albeit a perfectly understandable one. After all, it can’t be much fun competing against someone who is hitting his approach shots from 15-20 yards closer to the green.
McIlroy has no such worries, although he too has been startled to find himself so far adrift of the Australian despite playing well himself. He finished fourth at the BMW, eight shots behind the winner.
There is no doubt the Irishman is playing well, just as there is no doubt he has the gifts to match Day in any given week. The question is can he summon them at will in this week of weeks? And if McIlroy does so, how will the Australian respond? Can he sustain his form of the last two months for one more week? Can he improve on unearthly brilliance? If the answer on both counts is no, then expect McIlroy to pounce. All he needs is a few more putts to drop.
And if not McIlroy then who? The list of winners in recent years has been drawn from the “goods” as much as the “greats” of the PGA Tour. For every Phil Mickelson win (2009) there has been a Bill Haas or Jim Furyk triumph ( 2011 and 2010 respectively).
I expect McIlroy and Day to rise above both, but if not, then look to the second tier, where Harris English a local lad who knows East Lake well, or perhaps a Louis Oosthuizen who has the form and the game to win whenever the mood takes him.