Except for the majors, great golf never lodges in the memory bank so firmly as it can during PGA Tour events in January. At the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Jordan Spieth opened the New Year with a performance that will resist fading.
While there’s a list of other examples, it’s a short one. I will always carry an image of Johnny Miller in plaid trousers hitting iron shots with absurd precision to win the 1975 Phoenix Open by 14 shots, then coming back the next week at Tucson to win by nine with a closing 61.
Another is of a swaggering Lanny Wadkins in a deep blue cashmere sweater, using his quick but uncannily grooved action to whistling approaches at every pin at Riviera—“a concerto for woods and 2-irons,” wrote Jim Murray—to win the 1985 Los Angeles Open by seven.
Those among the minority that emerge (from the layoff) fully fit, filled with resolve and eager to put new ideas to the test have a better chance than normal to run away from the field.
In 1999, the first year the Plantation Course hosted the TOC, David Duval blew away the field by nine, three weeks before he shot final-round 59 to win the Bob Hope on his way to becoming World No. 1. In 2003, Ernie Els won by eight with a record 31 under par that Spieth threatened but couldn’t equal. And Tiger Woods often opened his seasons with emphatic statement victories at Torrey Pines, including four in a row from 2005 through 2008.
Why have these performances stayed with us? It helps that much of the television audience is watching from a cold, dark, golf-deprived environment. It’s a lot of pent-up people looking to live vicariously, their experience made more vivid by the rich colors and glamour of the golden west.
As for the players, many show up less than tournament sharp, satisfied after the holidays to ease back into the grind. Those among the minority that emerge fully fit, filled with resolve and eager to put new ideas to the test have a better chance than normal to run away from the field.
Miller’s enthusiasm for playing was always highest at the beginning of the year. Of his 25 career victories, eight came in the arid climes of Arizona and Palm Springs, earning him the nickname “The Desert Fox.” At the time, Miller explained that because he grew up on San Francisco courses with heavy air, damp grass and hilly land, it took high skill to hit the irons shots solidly and the right distance. By contrast, off the flat ground and perfect grass found on desert courses, to a supremely gifted 27-year-old in his absolute prime, stiffing the ball seemed easy. “It was sort of golfing nirvana,” said Miller years later. “I’d say my average iron shot for those three months in 1975 was within five feet of my chosen line.”
Spieth’s own January performance, shooting 30-under 262 to win by eight strokes over Patrick Reed, didn’t match Miller’s for aesthetics or sheer dominance. Still, it demonstrated a more important superiority over the competition built on the avoidance of mistakes. Spieth is capable of spectacular long shots—his 3-iron from 250 yards on the par-5 18th Saturday grazed the hole and led to a third-round-concluding eagle—but his greatest physical weapons are chipping and putting. At Kapalua he failed to get up-and-down for par only twice in 12 tries (both times on the par-3 eighth hole), while playing the 16 par 5s in 16 under, best in the field.
“He just hits so many quality golf shots,” says Brandt Snedeker of Spieth. “And when he doesn't, his short game is so good he doesn't make any bogeys.”
As he did for last season’s majors, where he finished 1-1-4-2, Spieth came to Hawaii mentally ready. In contrast to Woods and Phil Mickelson, who began to skip Kapalua in the mid-2000s, Spieth was delighted to be in Maui, bringing his parents and sister, Ellie.
“This is one that we strive to make each year,” Spieth told a roomful of golf writers early in the week. “And if I am eligible to play in this tournament and I'm not here, I hope every single one of you calls me and bashes me for it.” He added that his main motivation for winning was “guaranteeing I’ll be here next year.”
But Spieth also carried an edge, determined to prove 2015 was something to build off rather than rest on. He knew it was an opportunity to a jump out ahead of an absent Rory McIlroy and a rusty Jason Day. He approached the de facto season-opener much as he had the season-finale Tour Championship: as a place to send a message.
“I think each time you can close one out ... when you're in contention again, people are thinking, ‘OK, he knows how to close, right? He can close the deal,’ ” Spieth said Saturday, holding a five-stroke lead with 18 holes to play. “And it just puts a little bit more pressure to be more aggressive and have to do more than maybe you really have to. When Tiger is in contention, why is his record so phenomenal? Well, sure, he played the best golf and he was the strongest mentally. But everyone else knew that he could do it and maybe tried to do a bit too much.”
And though careful to say he wasn’t comparing himself to Woods, Spieth couldn’t help sounding more than a little like him. “Now I feel like we have an edge if we’re in contention,” Spieth said. “I wouldn’t have felt like we had an edge in ’14. I feel like now in ’16 we have an edge based on maybe other people who were in contention, they know that we're capable of closing.”
They know it even better after Sunday, when Spieth finished off a January performance that will be remembered.