What a difference a year makes.
Last summer, Rory McIlroy was blitzing through the golf world, winning where ever he went. He dominated the Open Championship at Hoylake. He clipped Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler at Valhalla at the PGA. He mixed in a title at the Bridgestone for good measure.
For the first time in a long time, golf fans allowed the term Tigeresque to slip into their lexicon. And with good reason. McIlroy was doing things only Woods had before him. At least that’s how things seemed.
Now, the World Number One is nursing an injured ankle after failing to continue his 2014 hot streak. In McIlroy’s stead stepped Jordan Spieth. The 2015 Masters Champion. The 2015 US Open Champion. On Sunday, Spieth claimed his fourth victory of the season at the John Deere Classic in a playoff over Tom Gillis.
What a difference two years makes.
In 2013, Spieth was a PGA Tour rookie facing a one-shot deficit on the 18th hole at the TPC Deere Run Course. He produced a miraculous bunker shot that dropped for a birdie, then bested John Deere master Zach Johnson in a playoff for his first career win.
Sunday’s final round should have carried the same drama. Instead, though, there was a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. Spieth played poorly after a stunning 61 shot him up the leaderboard.
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He held a two-shot lead on Sunday morning, but quickly saw it dissipate as Johnson and the 46-year-old Gillis reminded everyone why TPC Deere Run carries a reputation as one of the easiest track on Tour.
Meanwhile, Spieth struggled. He was one-over through 12. Even after birdieing the 13th, he was three back of Gillis.
But you knew Spieth would make a run. And boy did he ever. The Texan birdied three of his last five holes to equal Gillis, a man in search of his first win in a career that dates to 1993 (The year Spieth was born, we might add).
Spieth’s two on the par-3 16 was his finest of his 68 and matched his 72nd hole effort from 2013. He pitched a shot from just off the green that would have run seven or eight feet past the hole had it not found the bottom of the cup. At that point, it was effectively over. This year belonged to Spieth and once again he made the moment his.
Gillis’s demeanor remained unchanged through 19 holes. He and Spieth traded pars as the replayed 18 tied at -20. But the pressure—both from the playoff and the presence of Spieth—forced Gillis into his first error of the evening on the second playoff hole. He drove his tee ball right into the thick rough. When he tried to punch a five-iron through the trees, the Michigander watched his dreams of an elusive victory run into the water. Spieth two-putted for par.
What should have been dramatic was instead a formality. Of course Spieth won. Gillis’ consolation prize isn’t so bad. He gets to head to St. Andrew’s and the Open Championship.
But this was about Spieth as it now is always about Spieth. Sunday’s finish culminated a somewhat controversial week for the young professional. He had committed to the John Deere Classic long ago, but some felt he should withdraw to rest for the Open. A Thursday 71 suggested that maybe Spieth’s heart wasn’t in it.
That thought is three days old and even further away than that. Not only did Spieth storm back for the win, he reminded us that there would be no asterisk should he win next week as well. McIlroy will miss St. Andrew’s and he may still be ranked number one.
No one, though, is better than Spieth. And he proved it at the site where it all started.