IS THE PGA TOUR IN A GOOD PLACE?

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Updated: May 14, 2015
spieth rory

One of the great things about being a blogger is that you can pop off opinions without worrying about paying a price for being wrong. Hopefully one learns from erroneous predictions, though this is often not the case. Many a purveyor of opinions remain fixed firmly to their opinions, regardless of contrary evidence. The recently concluded Masters Golf Tournament made me question the following grand prediction I previously made on BLS: Jordan Spieth is a nice young man, but his bland and colorless personality will prevent him from becoming the kind of star player that commands the attention of the American golfing public, like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have for nearly two decades. Bland, soft-spoken, uncontroversial personalities have become the new norm in professional golf. I opined that without colorful characters with great games the Tour would suffer a decline in popularity.

As I noted in my previous post, advertising agencies are flocking to Jordan Spieth because, according to Bob Dorfman, executive director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, as a star player he isn’t flashy, outspoken or controversial and therefore would appeal to golf’s core audiences. Dorfman acknowledges Spieth lacks charisma and uniqueness, but thinks his squeaky-clean image is what golf traditionalists can get behind. Even before his Master’s win, advertising companies were lining up to sign him.

I didn’t doubt that advertisers would rush to sign Spieth, but I questioned whether such personality traits would appeal to the golfing public over the long haul. In saying this, I must admit to a bias. I remain enamored with past golf stars who combined great games with unique and colorful personalities—players like Walter Hagen (Walter Hagen: Flamboyant Trailblazer in Professional Golf), Jimmy Demaret, Tommy Bolt, Tony Lema, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, and, more recently, Miguel Angel Jimenez (The Most Interesting Golfer in the World).  Jordan Spieth and others among the current crop of new young stars who are shining brightest on the current Tour–players like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Jason Day–strike a bland contrast to colorful players I remember from past eras.

Hagen - swinging in style.

Walter Hagen

Flamboyance is not in Spieth’s makeup. My impression of him in his short time on the tour is of a polite and respectful young man, modest and unassuming, gracious in winning and losing, and accommodating to fans and the media.—the all-American boy who loves his family and dotes over his sister who has a disability. He dresses modestly and shows minimal emotion on the course, like most of the new generation of tour players. I understand how mothers and teeny-boppers could get behind the squeaky-clean Spieth, but what about the wider, and more fickle, golf audience?

This was my impression before the Masters, but watching his record setting-wire-to-wire performance caused me to change my opinion. Spieth displayed a superior—potentially dominant– game and revealed far more personality than I had previously noticed. He has forced me to re-think what it means to be colorful.

spieth fist pump

It became clear to me that underneath Spieth’s stoic, soft-spoken, and polite exterior burns a fire in the belly. I now see unique personality qualities that distinguish him from other young stars on the tour. How is Spieth unique? Let me count the ways:

  • The calmness and confidence he projects when under pressure is rare among Tour players, especially one so young. He projects a commanding body language and his steely-eyed looks tell us he’s going to pull off the shot he wants. Great shots don’t seem to surprise him. Such self-assurance without being boastful is a rarity among today’s players. Spieth conveys an air of serenity as he strolls the fairways. And he shows more emotion that I sensed before, evidenced in particular by his reaction to the par putt on 16 in the last round. It wasn’t quite Tiger-like when he holed the now-famous chip shot on the same hole, but for someone not known for such outbursts it showed he wasn’t immune to showing raw passion.
  • Spieth plays with a Phil-like bravado I hadn’t noticed before. A classic pin-hunter, he shunned chances to lay up on Sunday, attacking pins when so many others in his situation would have played safe. I suspect more of his bravado will be put on display in the future.
  • He talks to his golf ball in flight. The very instant the ball leaves his clubface, he seems to know if it needs to go, land soft, turn, or whatever. He doesn’t care if spectators hear him calling out; his reaction is spontaneous and uninhibited. What’s especially unique is that Spieth’s ball seems to listen to him.

  • He gives honest, unguarded and unscripted interviews. Most players are careful not to reveal too much in their responses to questions. Often, they don’t even answer what is asked. When asked to “tell us about your round,” the typical response is to describe what we just watched on TV—“I made a nice putt for birdie on 16.” Boring! Not Spieth; he provides commentary that give you an insight into what he was thinking. He takes you inside the ropes.
  • He appears to be totally lacking in phoniness: what you see is what you get. From most accounts, the image he projects on the course is like he is away from it. I’ve had my fill of split-personality superstars; think Tiger, Bubba, and Greg Norman.
  • He can trash talk with the best of them. Many of his close friends and fellow pros attest to this. Spieth can toss it out and take it. Trash talking is of course a no-no during tournament play, but it is an integral part of money games during practice rounds.   Spieth is reported to be among the best trash talkers, and he doesn’t hesitate to dispense some even to the big shot players. This reveals a fun-loving side that doesn’t show up on TV broadcasts.

As I’ve grown to resent player phoniness, egotism, boring and evasive interviews, robot-like mannerisms on the course, cautious play, and unshakable game faces, I now realize how unique Jordan is. He brings a refreshing realism to the tour. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to call it charisma, but it’s unique and it’s special. Bob Dorfman says because Jordan is not flashy, outspoken and uncontroversial he is very marketable. I disagree; his appeal lies in the solid, well-balanced game, his uncanny ability to escape from trouble, go-for-broke style, and the fun-loving spirit he conveys in interviews and when hanging with his pals. He reminds me of a young Phil Mickelson.

A recent analysis by Michael Fitzpatrick, documented that although professional golf nowadays belongs to the likes of McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Dustin Johnson, and Fowler, TV ratings are still driven by Tiger and Phil. It’s no contest; when Tiger and Phil are in the mix, ratings spike. When they aren’t, they drop, regardless of the drama, quality of golf, or which young stars are in the hunt. The Woods-Mickelson rivalry (or should I say “rivalry,” since it was pretty one-sided in favor of Tiger) has captivated golf audiences for nearly two decades.  Given their popularity, I also previously predicted that the general appeal of the PGA Tour would substantially decline when Tiger and Phil were no longer the main attractions. The recently-completed Master’s demonstrated that I may have been a bit premature in burying Tiger and Phil. Both showed flashes of their former selves. Perhaps we will witness a re-emergence of the two stars and maybe even a renewed rivalry.

woods and phil

History has proven that spirited rivalries, like Hagen-Jones, Hogan-Snead, Palmer-Nicklaus, and Woods-Mickelson push audience interest in the professional game. Will McIlroy-Spieth prove to be such a compelling rivalry? Many golf pundits think so. Sports Illustrated minced few words on its April 20 cover about how it sees golf’s future: Jordan Rules: the Spieth Era Begins Now.

We’ll have to see if a true and lasting McIlroy-Spieth rivalry materializes. With both players expressing a desire to be the #1 player in the world, there’s a good chance a spirited rivalry will develop. Given how young they are, it could last for years. Still it’s a long shot. Enduring rivalries are rare. It takes dominant players with major wins who can stay on top of the technical, physical, and mental aspects of the game and handle the pressures that come with celebrity status. My sense is that both McIlroy and Spieth may have what it takes, but there are many hurdles to overcome. How many times have we heard a young winner anointed as the next superstar, only to have them fade away like an Anthony Kim?

One hurdle that raises questions about the fan appeal of a McIlroy-Spieth rivalry is the apparent need for rivals to have not only dominating golf games, but a little edginess—a clash of personalities to add a little drama to the competition. All the other enduring rivalries I mentioned had an edge to them. One wonders if McIlroy and Spieth are simply too nice to bring the necessary testiness to the table. Perhaps the heat of repeated competition will bring out a little resentment, as it did between Tiger and Phil (or maybe the media will manufacture some). Or, maybe an edge won’t be needed, as the clash of superior golf games will provide enough compelling drama. Time will tell.

Though there are uncertainties, it appears professional golf may be in a better place than I suggested in my previous posts, especially in light of Fowler’s win at the Players Championship. Ricky Fowler brings a flashy X-Games personality to the bland and conformist Tour. Should he become part of a “Big Three” rivalry, followers of professional golf may quickly forget about Tiger and Phil.

While I would love to see more colorful characters on the PGA Tour, outgoing and outspoken players with unique and interesting lifestyles, I’m starting to warm to the quiet colorfulness displayed by Spieth, McIlroy, and Fowler. Respectfulness, politeness, civility, honesty, lack of ego and basic human decency may not be the stuff of typical golf legends, but in today’s hate-filled and hostile political culture they are a breath of much-needed fresh air.

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