ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Jordan Spieth was practicing a shot he hopes he won’t need this week, banging a few wedges off the wall on the famous Road Hole in the fading sun at this, the birthplace of golf.
Dead tired after winning yet again in Illinois before flying all night to get here for what could be a defining moment in golf, Spieth was still intent on having a bit of fun.
“Who wants this?” he yelled out, signing a ball and then tossing it left-handed toward the 50 or so fans still around Monday night.
It caused a bit of a frenzy, but just for a moment. There weren’t many fans around, and those who were seemed as if they were still trying to figure out this young Texan who has the golf world buzzing.
They’re not alone. Those in a sport that has been fixated for the better part of two decades on Tiger Woods are still trying to decipher Spieth themselves.
What they do know is that he’s 21, and in the midst of greatest the stretch of golf anyone has seen since Woods burst on the scene and transformed the sleepy game into must-see TV.
Forget the fact that part of the Woods mystique was that he was a rare player of color in a mostly lily-white game. Woods caused more of a stir by doing other things no one had ever seen before, thrilling fans with his booming drives and winning with clutch putts punctuated by his signature fist pump.
Spieth is no Tiger Woods. Doesn’t try to be, though they do share the same habit of talking angrily to themselves during a round.
He doesn’t overwhelm a crowd with his presence, doesn’t intimidate other players while wearing a red shirt on Sunday. In a game dominated by Woods and the power hitters who followed, he’s not even in the same neighborhood as the big boys with a driver in his hand.
What Spieth does do is win. This year he’s done it on the biggest stages in golf, grabbing a green jacket at the Masters and following it with a win a few weeks back at the U.S. Open. Add in a British Open and PGA Championship title, and he would be the first player to win the Grand Slam in a calendar year.
He largely does it on his own terms, taking the title at the John Deere Classic on Sunday when others suggested he might be better served by leaving early for Scotland to discover the many vagaries of the oldest course in golf.
But Spieth has a confidence that borders on swagger and, much like Woods in his prime, a belief that his best is better than yours no matter where you tee it up.
“He beats you properly,” former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. “He beats you with better golf. He doesn’t beat you because he hits it further. Tiger’s intimidation was that he always did something amazing. Jordan — don’t get me wrong, his body of work is amazing — but he doesn’t beat you with a crazy par, or a crazy chip-in from the back of the 14th at Muirfield (Village). He just beats you because he’s better.”
Just how much better Spieth really is, only time will tell. His career is in its infancy still, and it’s way too early to crown him as the next great player, way too soon to begin talking about whether he — and not Woods — will be the one who finally takes down the record of 18 major titles held by Jack Nicklaus.
Besides, despite the struggles of Woods in recent times, there’s a reasonable chance he’s still got enough golf in him at age 39 to finally get past the 14th major he won at the U.S. Open way back in 2008.
“I’m still young,” Woods said Tuesday. “I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done, but I’m still right here in front of you.”
The tables, though, have turned. While others over the years tried unsuccessfully to stake their claim as Woods’ major rival, it is now Woods who tries to get back in the conversation with Spieth, Rory McIlroy and other young players who have now firmly established themselves as the future of golf.
Almost shockingly, Woods has been reduced to almost an afterthought in the biggest tournaments. Playing by himself Monday night behind Spieth on a nearly deserted course, he was largely ignored by the handful of fans who were still hanging around.
Up ahead, Spieth was finished and ready to find the nearest bed. He signed a few autographs and was heading for the exit when asked whether he was too tired to win his third straight major.
“No, I feel just fine,” Spieth said. “It’s a beautiful spot here.”
It was, indeed, especially with the sun setting over the 18th green and the town of St. Andrews behind. But even more beautiful for many in golf would be the sight of Spieth holding the claret jug that goes to the winner on Sunday.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg