We’re all fumbling our way through 2017 amid endless bluster and empty hype. It’s a world where LaVar Ball can claim, with a straight face, that he could beat Michael Jordan, a world where people can get suckered into believing that Michael Phelps would race an actual shark. Here, today, we live in a world where you can blurt out any ridiculous, over-the-top rant that percolates through your skull, and somebody, somewhere will take you seriously. (I’m sure you can think of your own examples.)
So it comes as a relief — hell, a revelation — that we’re standing on the edge of an achievement that justifies every bit of the hype we can ladle. Jordan Spieth tees off at the PGA Championship on Thursday with a chance to complete a career Grand Slam, winning all four of golf’s premier tournaments. Only five players have ever managed the feat, and only 13 more — including Spieth — have even won three of the necessary four. That, friends, is performance worth notice.
Here’s the thing, though: Spieth’s rise has been so rapid, and so recent, that it hasn’t really had time to marinate in the public consciousness. Spieth won his first major at Augusta in April 2015, a time so recent that since then, there have only been two Super Bowls, and no team other than the Warriors and Cavs has played in the NBA Finals. You’ve probably got shirts in your closet you haven’t worn and old friends you haven’t called since Spieth won that first major. (Get on that.)
Narrowing the lens to golf alone draws the lines even sharper. In the time that Spieth has won three majors, eight other players have won one apiece … and none of those have been Rory McIlroy. Tiger Woods hasn’t made the cut in a major since then. Phil Mickelson? He hasn’t even won a tournament in that time.
So it’s not surprising that golf, which venerates its past like no other sport, seems a bit taken aback by Spieth’s sudden ascent to within sight of the sport’s pinnacle. Sure, he’s had an amazing few years, but if Spieth wins, he’d achieve something that Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Mickelson never could. He’d stand on a career mountaintop with only five other men — Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen. He’d reach it earlier than any of them, even Woods, and he’d belong there.
Because that’s the thing about a career Grand Slam: you can’t backdoor your way into it. You might win a major or two thanks to a lucky break — hell, Spieth himself deserves a Christmas card from Danny Willett every year for gifting him that 2016 green jacket — but all four? And all four in the space of just three years? At a younger age than anyone in the history of golf? Look, we’re all sick of the MUST-SEE MOMENTs and GREATEST GAME EVERs that dominate sports coverage in 2017 … but if this tournament breaks Spieth’s way, we’re legitimately talking a monumental achievement, no way around it.
Spieth is just 24 years old. He’s got a good 20 years of competitive golf ahead of him. Let’s play conservative and say he wins just one out of every ten majors he plays from here on out. That’s still another eight majors, leaving him behind only Nicklaus’ 18 and Woods’ 14. And if Spieth hits another hot streak and racks up a couple in a row — “free rolling,” he calls it — hell, who knows where this is going?
Yes, we know, we’re not supposed to place undue burdens on a guy’s career. We’ve seen what happens when players on stratospheric trajectories hit adversity (and, yes, fire hydrants). So, no, Spieth isn’t the next early-2000s Tiger. He doesn’t have Tiger’s phenomenal gifts off the tee or Tiger’s ability to intimidate an entire field. What Spieth does have is a sense of imagination, a creative yet analytical mind, and a feel for momentum that are all at least the equal of Woods. Head-to-head, you take Woods every day of the week and twice on Masters Sunday. But over the course of a 20-year career? Then, the question gets a little murkier.
The late Dale Earnhardt used to claim that he could see the air coming off the cars around him, and Spieth has a similar gift: the ability to read the ebbs and flows of a round and know exactly when to hammer down the throttle. Witness last month’s British Open, when Spieth turned a one-shot deficit into a two-shot lead in just five holes, holes that included a shot so wayward Spieth ended up on the wrong side of a mountain. Spieth knew exactly the moment to fire up his game, and he left poor Matt Kuchar soot-covered and coughing by the side of the road.
He could do that again this week. He could streak out to an early start, which is his method of choice in majors, or he could lurk, allowing some hopeless soul (probably, if trends continue, Charley Hoffman) to spend a night or two atop the leaderboard before Spieth scythes his way upward.
Spieth insists that he’s not focused on any questions of legacy or career achievements this week, and that’s what he’s supposed to say. Counting majors before they’re in the bag is a sure route to disaster and disappointment, as McIlroy could testify.
“Expectations, I really don’t feel any,” Spieth said Wednesday morning at Quail Hollow. “This is a chance to complete the career Grand Slam; I’m here, so I’m going to go ahead and try. But I believe I’m going to have plenty of chances, and I’m young enough to believe in my abilities that it will happen at some point.”
Yes, there are 72 holes and 155 players between Spieth and that Grand Slam. It’ll be a long slog through wet Carolina fairways to get to the Wanamaker Trophy. But if he does pull this off, he’ll deserve every bit of the hype and praise coming his way. It’d be nice to celebrate actual achievement, for once.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.