In the end, it was a drive that ended Jordan Spieth’s day at The Northern Trust on Sunday. In reality, it was a putt by Dustin Johnson that precipitated that end. Within that stroke on the 72nd hole was the potential for the greatest rivalry in modern golf.
The ridiculousness of golf’s fascination with identifying the next Mount Rushmore of golf stars has taken away from what the sport truly needs: a compelling, consistent, mano-a-mano battle between two stars. What felt destined to be Rory McIlroy versus Jordan Spieth has given way to Spieth vs. DJ – at least for one week.
The one thing both players have in common – being Americans – is what drives the need in the United States for it to work. Whatever needle was left post-Tiger is only moved by these two. Golf needs this past Sunday to happen again, and often.
In the past four years, the outlying high TV ratings for the four major championships have been driven by performances of Spieth, Johnson and Phil Mickelson. Spieth’s Masters win in 2015 set the non-Tiger high water mark. His win over Johnson at that summer’s U.S. Open is a full ratings point higher than any in the same span.
With the eyeballs as proof, the dichotomy of the two players is what makes the pending rivalry the best. Fans don’t want to see buddies beating each other. While Spieth and Johnson aren’t unfriendly, they are different. There are sides to take. There is juice to watch.
Spieth is the clean cut wunderkind; a boiling pot of competitive desire strategically hidden by an (under) armour of branding along the lines of Woods, Jeter, Jordan, etc. His game is a throwback; a feel player with a once-in-a-generation short game that gives him a flair and longevity.
Johnson is the personification of the game’s modern explosion; a freakish athlete whose strength and length hid a man whose 20s were as combustible as a TMZ newsfeed. Will he last physically? Mentally? It’s part of the allure.
Spieth talks more to each shot he hits than Johnson does in a post-round press conference.
Johnson walks with a swagger that is the polar opposite of the tightly wound energy of Spieth’s bounding stride.
Combined, the two would create the greatest golfer of all time.
Johnson’s ability to win with an all-around game on Sunday is what makes this rivalry a reality. For the second year in a row, he will rank inside the top 50 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. His dedication to his wedge game is well documented. He is a golf Terminator.
Spieth is learning to cope with the scar tissue of past failures, rolling in putts with regularity and embracing the greatness – and emotion – that was expected of him. He is doing it all within an understanding that he must do it differently than most of his peers.
“I'm at such a disadvantage,” Spieth remarked after the loss, referencing Johnson’s length.
“You're never unbeatable, that's for sure,” Johnson countered.
Golf is a humbling sport, and both took the modest road after a wonderful duel. Johnson leads the FedEx Cup standings. Spieth is second. Johnson is No. 1 in the world. Spieth is second.