We would be much happier if sports debates mimicked those of art. No one attempts to compare Picasso to Da Vinci. Rather, we accept that each was a genius in his time. The same can be said of literature and film. Is Twain better than Dickens, Poe better than Hawthorne, Wilde better than Austen, or Casablanca better than The Godfather?
Your answers really depend on your preference.
We can measure sales, awards, or hours spent in college classrooms dissecting the works but for the most part we don’t stack them against each other. All have their own unique settings and audiences, both of which defined the greatness of the piece as much as the piece itself. We can—I hope—acknowledge that in the arts. We don’t seem to want to in sports.
“Why should we?” is a fair retort. After all, pointless debates are the most fun. But if we aren’t careful they can lead us astray and make us unjustly criticize a great athlete at the expense of another. The most tiresome of these comparisons is LeBron James vs Michael Jordan.
“Jordan won six rings and went 6-0 in the finals,” the pro-MJ crowd will tell you. “Yeah but he lost in the first round, too, something LeBron has never done. Plus he had Pippen. Who has LeBron had?”
You get the point.
In golf, the argument is a little different only because Tiger Woods dominates all conversation. For a huge portion of fans, he was the introductory figure and at his best a Jordanesque, Ruth-like influence on the sport in a global sense. Any winning streak or breakthrough from a young player evokes immediate Tiger comparisons, or worse, unsolicited put downs.
So it’s been for the last two seasons.
In 2014, Rory McIlroy won two consecutive majors, the latter a come-from-behind triumph at the PGA Championship as darkness fell on Valhalla. The Tiger rumblings started then when people began to accept we were in a new era in golf.
Little did we know what would come in 2015. Jordan Spieth tied Tiger’s scoring record at Augusta in April, he all but stole the US Open at Chambers Bay, and then he missed out on the first modern grand slam by one putt and three strokes respectively at the Open and PGA. The young (mature, poised, classy, etc.) Texan has won two other events, finished second four times, and posted 14 top-10’s. During this streak, he also usurped McIlroy as the World’s No. 1 player.
After his latest near-miss at Whistling Straits, which saw him finish the four majors at 54-under-par, one better than Woods’ single-season record, the initial query that preceded the PGA became a full-on discussion: Is Spieth’s 2015 better than Tiger’s 2000? Or at the very least, close?
Measured side-by-side, the answer is a definitive no.
Tiger’s season was statistically the greatest of all time. He won nine tournaments, three majors (breaking two scoring records in the process), and finished in the top-10 17 times in 20 events. His 53-under-par in the majors was 35 strokes better than Ernie Els, who had the second lowest total at -18. For comparison, Jason Day finished at -35 in 2015, Justin Rose at -34, Dustin Johnson at -29, and Louis Oosthuizen at -27.
And here we can begin to see why we should avoid the argument in the first place. Instead of considering Spieth’s season for what is, we measure it for what it isn’t. He was great but not as great as Tiger. Besides, it was much easier to score this past season than it was in 2000.
Both statements are true, both get us nowhere. Spieth deserves every accolade and compliment he gets this year. In the post-Tiger era no one has captured the audience, especially young audience, quite like him.
He played with an inviting, radiating charisma that inspired rather than intimidated. Even McIlroy, the former number one and for all intents and purposes last year’s version of Spieth, acknowledged the latter in the hours following the PGA. He tweeted.
— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) August 16, 2015
McIlroy didn’t have to say anything and so it felt genuine. These guys want to play well because their contemporaries play well. That’s something that Tiger never captured in the same way.
That doesn’t make Spieth (and to some extent Day and McIlroy) better than Tiger, it only makes him different. And that’s the point.
We can talk about 2000 vs 2015 all we want, but we must see the unique greatness in both. Woods’ season was a singular, Olympian effort. Spieth won and brought a young generation with him to the top.
Debating the merits of each leaves us in the same state that every modern argument tends to end: why are we yelling again?