Woods just an inspiration, no longer a threat?
THIS is how far, how fast, Jordan Spieth's star has risen: The challenge consuming him two Decembers ago was to pass his finals in his sophomore courses at the University of Texas.
"It seems like it was a while ago," he said before acing his final test of this year on Sunday: the Hero World Challenge.
He closed with a six-under 66 at Isleworth Golf and Country Club to finish at 26-under 262, a tournament record. He finished 10 strokes ahead of Henrik Stenson, the largest margin of victory in the event's 16 years.
He also won the Australian Open last week and tied for third at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan last month.
Spieth's cumulative score, his lowest in relation to par, was a stroke better than the career best of the Challenge's host, Tiger Woods, who finished 25-under at the 2000 Johnnie Walker Classic and at the 2002 WGC-American Express Championship.
"In general," Spieth said, "this was the best that I've ever played."
A lot of water has flowed under the Swilcan Bridge since he decided to leave college at the end of 2012 and join the PGA Tour. Woods, who turned professional three years after Spieth was born, has gone 16 months without an official victory.
Woods' heir apparent, Rory McIlroy, lost his No. 1 ranking and regained it on the strength of his performance over the last 13 months, during which he has won five tournaments on three continents and recorded five runner-up finishes.
Woods turns 39 this month, which is by no means a retirement sentence. During the weekend, John Daly, 48, won in Turkey, and Padraig Harrington, 43, did so in Indonesia. But in the Darwinian jungle of sports, Woods, who won five times last year, has quickly gone from dominant to endangered.
It is not just because his body is a year older, with another surgical scar. While Woods was losing feel and confidence after having back surgery, the next generation - led by McIlroy, 25; Spieth, 21; Patrick Reed, 24; and Hideki Matsuyama, 22 - was gaining experience, victories and momentum.
Twenty-six strokes separated Spieth and Woods, who closed with a 72 to finish tied for 17th in the 18-player field at even-par 288.
"What he's doing out here is pretty impressive," Woods said, referring not only to Spieth's play last week but also to his overall performance as a pro, which includes three victories and appearances in the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup. "Hard to believe he was in college only a couple of years ago."
Led by McIlroy, the top players are achieving more at a younger age, using a blueprint they got from Woods. If Woods wants to rule the sport again, it is not enough for him to regain his form of last year - or even of 2008, when he won his 14th Major on a broken leg. If Woods wants to compete with the 20-somethings, he will have to hit more fairways and drain more putts than he did then.
His "B" game will not be good enough to prevail over a generation that he has inspired but does not intimidate. To wit, McIlroy, Spieth and Reed all carded 63s this year while paired with him.
Golf may never hit another jackpot like Woods, whose combination of focus, form and ambition in his prime was the game's version of triple cherries. McIlroy has shied away from the comparisons, saying his aspirations are to be the best he can be, not the best ever. This week, Spieth joined the chorus.
"People want to see somebody come up and do what Tiger did and change the generation of golf," Spieth said. "That's not necessarily what I'm out here to do.
"Right now, I look at the No. 1 in the world, Rory McIlroy, what he did this year, and I'm trying to chase him more than anything else."