Big Win At Pebble Beach Aside, 23-Year-Old Texan To Face Fierce Test From Many At Augusta National

By Benjamin Block
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Jordan Spieth notched his ninth career PGA Tour victory on Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, becoming the second youngest player in history, at 23 years and 6 months, to reach that win total.

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Bookending him on that proverbial shelf are golf’s golden standards — Tiger Woods, who won his ninth title at 23 years and 5 months, and Jack Nicklaus, who accomplished the feat just after he turned 24.

Unfortunately for Spieth, the win drew a knee-jerk comparison, because he is now officially on pace to match Woods’ 79 PGA Tour victories, three shy of Sam Snead’s incomprehensible record of 82.

After learning of the nonsensical and unsupported insinuation, Spieth smartly did a Texas two-step around the misguided parallels.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to win at the same percentage that Tiger won at, so that’s a bit different,” he said after his final round Sunday.

It’s a hollow narrative anyway to suggest that Spieth could maintain that unrelenting pace. As good as he’s been at such a young age, Spieth has already missed 16 cuts since turning pro in 2012, while Woods has missed merely 17 cuts since turning pro back in 1996.

But the focus does deserve to be about how Spieth has become the fifth different 20-something to win on tour in 2017. He joins Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Hudson Swafford and buddy Justin Thomas — the only repeat winner of the calendar year so far.

And the timing of Spieth’s win came as no surprise, as he’s been stalking leaderboards for the past two months. Coming into Sunday, his worst finish was a tie for ninth at the prior week’s Phoenix Open, which was preceded by a third-place finish at the Sony Open, and a tie for third at the Tournament of Champions before that.

Hideki Matsuyama

Hideki Matsuyama plays his tee shot on the 18th hole during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb. 5, 2017, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Spieth’s Titleist Pro V1x ball had pierced through the stormy-turned-crystallized Monterey, California air at Pebble Beach for 21 birdies over his first 54 holes. For the final round he shot 16 cruise-control pars, which elevated the boring superstar to a 72-hole score of 19-under-par, four strokes clear of runner-up Kelly Kraft.

Spieth’s shine on Friday and Saturday, created a lot of separation and very little drama for Sunday, nullifying a late, yet hard-charging field that included big bombers Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.

It was Spieth’s caddie, Micheal Greller, who kept egging on his guy to play boring golf all day Sunday, which a smiling Spieth revealed to Jim Nance, Nick Faldo and octogenarian Clint Eastwood on the CBS set following the trophy ceremony.

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“I don’t like boring golf, but that’s what was needed today,” explained the Under Armour pitchman.

Tasting victory for the first time in 2017, after an underwhelming two wins and no majors in 2016, Spieth’s shot making and ball striking was reminiscent of 2015. That year he captured both of his major championships — the Masters and U.S. Open, and finished second at the PGA Championship and tied for fourth at the Open Championship.

With Sunday’s win, Vegas Insider has slotted Spieth as the 8-to-1 favorite to win this year’s Masters, followed by Day and Rory McIlroy both at 17-t0-2, Johnson at 11-to-1, and Matsuyama at 12-to-1.

But if odds told the whole story, last year’s Masters champ, Danny Willett, wouldn’t have been listed as a 50-to-1 shot to win. And actual favorite, Day, would not have finished tied for 10th.

Spieth may be this year’s favorite, but by no means is a second Masters green jacket a forgone conclusion, especially after how he imploded last year by blowing a five-shot final-round lead.

McIlroy has earned the right to be feared at any major, especially the one that with a win would complete his career grand slam. He’ll be coming to Augusta this year having played very few rounds of competitive golf because of the stress fracture to his rib that he suffered back in January. But with the Masters nine tournaments away, and his timetable to return being the WGC-Mexico Championship on March 2, there’s time. And a fresh, healthy and determined player with a championship pedigree can’t be discounted at the Masters.

Someone more inclined, ready and capable of toppling the field at Augusta is Matsuyama. A two-time winner on tour during the 2016-17 season, the young, deliberate Japanese power player also owns a pristine 3-0 career record in playoffs, which illustrates his calm nerves in the biggest moments. Advantage Matsuyama if he’s in the mix and it’s tight on Sunday at Augusta National.

Newest Nike peddler Day hasn’t played up to the World No. 1 ranking that he somehow still holds. He loomed at Pebble Beach, finishing in a tie for fifth, but missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, along with Woods, and humbly tied for 12th at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. But the 2015 PGA Champion tied for second place and finished in fourth at the 2011 and 2013 Masters, respectively, so he knows what it takes.

Johnson’s short game has been noticeably better in 2017, but the stark contrast still persists between his driving and putting. The World No. 3 leads the tour in driving distance, but has buried himself as the 190th best putter. He’d be a runaway champion at the Masters if his putting caught up to the rest of his game.

The best way for Spieth to live up to the hype as the favorite to win this year’s Masters is to replicate the fast start and boring finish he just showed at Pebble Beach.

If he has another 54-hole lead at the Masters, I think he’ll gladly accept posting the most boring Sunday ever.

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Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @benjaminblock21