Jordan Spieth ready for big show: Tiger, Phoenix and the 16th hole
Tiger Woods faced dozens of reporters and cameras, a big gathering in a crowded section outside the clubhouse at the TPC Scottsdale. Just then, Jordan Spieth walked on a path above the staging area and smiled when he saw the scene.
With mock curiosity, he mouthed the words, ”Who’s that?”
He’s only 21 and starting his third season as a pro, but the kid gets it. The Waste Management Phoenix Open was once called the greatest show on turf, although a big part of it has become the Tiger show, not unlike several weeks on the PGA Tour.
And with so much hype over Woods in Phoenix for the first time in 14 years, and making his first official start since an injury-filled season, Spieth gets a front row seat.
Just like always.
Spieth actually predicted to his friends a few weeks ago that he would wind up in the same group with Woods for the opening two rounds, ”just because the last two times he’s come back from injuries, I’ve been paired with him.”
If history is any indication, that might not be good news for Woods.
The first time wasn’t a big injury. Woods had some minor aches in his back at the end of the 2013 season, and he played his first event at Torrey Pines. Spieth was nine shots better than Woods that week – thanks to a 63 on the North course at Torrey Pines – and Woods wound up missing the 54-hole cut.
Fast forward to June. Woods had back surgery in the spring that caused him to miss the first two majors. He chose to return at the Quicken Loans National, and Spieth was with Woods the opening two rounds. Both of them hit the ball all over Congressional, except that Spieth was saved by his exquisite short game. Spieth rallied and tied for 11th, four shots out of a playoff. Woods missed the cut.
Patrick Reed will be joining them, and there’s some history there, too.
Reed and Spieth were Ryder Cup partners at Gleneagles in September. Reed wears a red shirt on Sunday as a tribute to Woods. The group is among the late starters when the tournament begins on Thursday, both hitting the famous par-3 16th hole late in the afternoon.
No one is sure what to expect from Woods. He tied for last in his 18-man field at Isleworth in December. Before that, he missed the cut at the PGA Championship when he was not fully recovered from his back surgery.
Woods has looked strong and stable in two days of practice, including the pro-am Wednesday. He said he is hitting the ball as far as he was 15 years ago, though scoring has been the issue of late.
This also is a big year for Spieth.
As a 19-year-old rookie, he had no status on any tour and finished 2013 with a victory at the John Deere Classic, a good run all the way through the FedEx Cup playoffs and a spot in the Presidents Cup.
Last year was shaping up as a sophomore slump. He had early chances at winning before faltering on the weekend. He had a two-shot lead in the final round at the Masters with 11 holes to play until Bubba Watson surged past him. And he went toe-to-toe with Martin Kaymer at The Players Championship until a bad Sunday.
But he finished the year in style with a big rally on Sunday to win the Australian Open, and a 10-shot win over the small but world-class field at Isleworth.
”I think 2014 was an improvement on 2013 and more valuable,” he said. ”Last year was more valuable being in contention at the Masters and playing a Ryder Cup. And the feeling of playing a Ryder Cup is almost like each nine holes is the back nine Sunday of a major.”
Next up is to figure out where it will lead.
What he learned the last two tournaments was to stay patient on Sunday when he hears the roars around him of other players doing well. He is growing up in a hurry.
Woods conceded on Tuesday that security issues with so many people in Phoenix was one reason he stayed away. He has looked relaxed all week, even when he left the wrong kind of impression with his play on the 16th hole.
For a Wednesday pro-am, the crowd in the stadium atmosphere was larger than anyone could remember – some 15,000 people or more, not an empty seat in any of the bleachers or sky boxes that enclose the hole.
Woods hit 9-iron into a bunker and was booed, and he played along by tugging down his white cap in mock shame. But when he tried to blast out of the bunker, he bladed the shot over the green and into the front row of the bleachers. He also duffed a chip on the 18th hole.
But that was Wednesday. The shots don’t count until Thursday, and there figures to be plenty of people watching. That includes Spieth.
”I probably won’t get yelled at as much on 16 because of the pairing,” Spieth said.