Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy may be stealing all the headlines heading into the 2015 Masters at Augusta National, but it’s Jordan Spieth you should be watching.
The world No. 4 golfer finished 2014 with a first-place finish at the Hero World Challenge and then proceeded to pick up play this year right where he left off last. Though it’s still far too early in the season for such talk, Spieth’s play has him on pace to claim PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.
Or, as SB Nation’s Brendan Porath concisely summarized, this “should only be the start of a monster year” for Spieth.
The 21-year-old from Dallas, Texas, is carrying some serious momentum into Augusta after finishing second in a three-way playoff at the Shell Houston Open on Sunday (highlighted in the video below), finishing second at the Valero Texas Open a week before and winning a three-hole playoff against Patrick Reed and Sean O’Hair at the Valspar Championship on March 15.
In addition to those near misses, Spieth also registered more-than-respectable finishes of tied for 17th at the WGC-Cadillac (March 8), tied for fourth at the Northern Trust Open (February 22), tied for seventh at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (February 15) and tied for seventh at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (February 1).
However, what is perhaps as important as those consistent quality finishes is the simple fact that he has played competitive golf nearly every week from the start of February right up to this week’s Masters.
Nothing prepares a player better for the inevitable pitfalls of a major than coming into the tournament with rhythm and confidence from a well-oiled swing.
The oddsmakers seem to agree with that assessment, as the latest figures from Odds Shark have Spieth as an 8-1 favorite to win the Masters, just behind McIlroy at 11-2 and just ahead of 2012 and 2014 champion Bubba Watson at 10-1.
Spieth has not yet won his first major—he certainly may be forgiven for his youth—but his best finish by far was at last year’s Masters, where he ended up tied for second with Jonas Blixt, three strokes behind champion Bubba Watson.
Here’s a handy overview of his career to date, courtesy of Golfing World:
It should be noted that his tied-for-second finish last year was the Texan’s first appearance at Augusta, so there isn’t enough career data to determine whether it was merely a fluke or the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Spieth and Georgia’s most famous course.
Either way, Spieth currently has all the skills necessary to win the Masters and become the second-youngest player in history (behind only Tiger Woods) to win three PGA Tour events before his 22nd birthday.
The challenge would be daunting for any young professional, but Spieth seems relatively calm about his experience playing at Augusta. “I felt very comfortable with more and more pressure going into Augusta, which has the most pressure anywhere,” said Spieth, per The Associated Press (via The Dallas Morning News).
The mental game is half the battle (or considerably more in golf, depending on whom you ask), but the 21-year-old also boasts some impressive statistics that show he has the physical ability to go toe-to-toe with the world’s best.
He ranks second on tour in approaches from inside 100 yards, per PGATour.com, which will prove invaluable when targeting pins through Amen Corner. For a glimpse at how Spieth thinks through the numerous variables of a simple-looking approach shot, take a look at the video below, courtesy of Titleist.
As managing editor of Golf.com Eamon Lynch notes, Spieth “is supremely confident [and] putts with fearless 21-year-old nerves,” suggesting the world No. 4 is a cool customer anytime the flagstick is within reach.
And the stats, for their part, back up Lynch’s claims about the young man’s putting acumen. According to PGATour.com, Spieth ranks first on tour in both putting average (1.68 per hole) and putts per round (27.5).
OK, so he’s confident with the short sticks—but does he measure up off the tee?
Though Augusta’s layout favors long, left-handed drivers like Watson, the righty Spieth won’t feel off the pace with a driving-distance average of approximately 293 yards (ranked 55th on tour).
His 60.7 percent driving accuracy (ranked 101st) also shouldn’t prove to be too much of a hindrance, given that the course’s generally short rough isn’t the most punishing aspect of the Alister MacKenzie design.
When you put it all together into one number, Spieth’s third-ranked scoring average of 69.5 illustrates a level of consistency that overrides any individual aspect of his game. He has the ability to compensate and adjust, giving him a more complete game and an advantage over other players who may take a more one-dimensional approach to some shots.
“Driving is a strength of mine," said Spieth, via Ron Kaspriske of Golf Digest. "I don't hit it the farthest, but I don't see a lot of players working the ball left or right the way I do. I focus on getting better angles into the greens rather than distance or making sure it's in the fairway.
And even when he does miss the fairway, his teacher Cameron McCormick notes that “he doesn’t miss by much.”
Spieth’s well-rounded play embodies a level of experience and maturity that is well beyond his years. He may be only 21, but right now he’s playing like a Masters champion.
As NBC Sports’ Ryan Lavner so aptly stated, referencing Spieth’s maturation since his Masters debut last year, “The baby-faced hotshot who stumbled down the stretch at Augusta bears little resemblance to the self-assured stud who returns to Georgia as the No. 4 player in the world. … The kid is going to win a Masters, and there’s a good chance it’ll happen this week.”
Watson and McIlroy may have something to say about that, but bet on Spieth to be in contention Sunday, when anything can happen.