By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) We’ve gotten used to big golf stories being heavy, burdened by history and long-held opinion and the natural tribalism of sports and the way they are covered and presented, now. Characters are congealed by both objective outcomes and chosen narrative lines, every swing meaning something more than what it is.
As eyes turn to the start of the Open Championship at St. Andrews on Thursday, we should make sure we appreciate what Jordan Spieth is doing at the moment, and that’s making it all a bit lighter and certainly more fun. There doesn’t seem to be much to know about him at this point other than this unexpected chase for immortality – and that’s fine. More than that, actually, it’s a welcome break.
If nothing else, we have no reason to dislike Spieth yet. So we might as well enjoy watching him work and rooting for him before that changes, as it probably will over time.
Tiger Woods’ saga is weary already, as we’ve endured his public humiliation and unfolding humanization that has crossed back again toward the grotesque, amid tabloid relationships, various injuries and inconsistent play. We see him look old and tired and hear his post-mortem rationalizations, but we continue to care as if by mere habit, many of us hoping against our better judgment that this time it will be different and it can go back to the special experience that it was to watch him in full command of legendary talent. Yet somewhere in our minds we know better.
Similarly great but never quite connecting in the same way has been Phil Mickelson, and he now has those who enjoy his astonishing high-loft wedge shots and vapid grin offset by enough who see him as a phony. The shady connections to insider traders, money launderers and high-stakes international gamblers are a drag on him as well.
Enjoy Bubba Watson if you like, but I don’t. That puts me in good company with plenty of other Tour players, per too many personal accounts from any number of people around the game and at least one well-publicized, anonymous survey. The image of the free-spirited Good ‘ol Boy has been undermined by whining and tantrums, all of his Bible-quoting retail religiosity exposed as shameless self-aggrandizement by countervailing behavior. He can be a compelling player, but he’s a typically hypocritical, country-fried southern dipstick.
Not participating in the Open is the injured Rory McIlroy, but in a way he has already served an important purpose in helping us better enjoy Spieth. McIlroy’s own blistering start to his career – the four major wins by the age of 25 – ignited the inevitable “next Tiger” discussions that were simultaneously understandable and unfair. It wasn’t enough for him to be an accomplished young player in his own right, with fans somehow needing the Woods vacuum occupied by another, similar phenomenon, as unlikely as that was and is.
Notice that Spieth’s story to this point is mostly free of that lazy comparison, largely due to the increasing understanding of how forced the effort is. One positive aspect of the Tiger Woods career arc descending is the lessened compulsion to have to somehow replicate that experience.
For now, at least, Spieth’s in something of a sweet spot. He’s fresh enough to be free of any real negatives, accomplished enough to merit every bit of attention and sufficiently distant from simplistic, overwrought comparison to Woods or anybody else, save for Bobby Jones or Ben Hogan when discussing his current pursuit.
This won’t last – either the streak of major wins itself or the chance to enjoy it without the complication that becomes inevitable as years go by.