LAST few tournaments leading up the first Major of the year, next month’s Masters, are a bit like heats at the Olympics, and few currently look in better shape than youngster Jordan Spieth.
The American, 21, became the third youngest man to win multiple PGA Tour titles when he won a three-man play-off to claim the Valspar Championship in an extraordinary finish in Florida on Sunday.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen short game like that from Spieth and Patrick Reed during the closing stages. Spieth in particular had two up and downs which he had perhaps a three in 10 chance of holing, yet made both.
His swing is not a classic one but it doesn’t have many faults and is very confident; it repeats every time, meaning he is consistent. Spieth is also one of the best putters I’ve seen and clearly has guts; it takes balls to make the shots he needed to when a play-off place was at stake, and his previous win on the tour, the 2013 John Deere Classic, also came via a play-off.
Now up to No6 in the world rankings, Spieth’s progress has been extraordinary. They may not have come on the PGA Tour but two extremely impressive wins late last year – the Australian Open, which he won by six after a course record 63 final round, and the Hero World Challenge, where he obliterated the 72-hole record and finished 26 under par – marked him out as a star.
Spieth has now overtaken Rickie Fowler as America’s brightest young golfing talent and, of his countrymen, is behind only Bubba Watson in the rankings. You’d also have to include Dustin Johnson, who has been on blistering form since returning from a lengthy absence, among that group.
Reed is also playing very well. The man who declared 12 months ago that he was among the world’s top five players, is like Marmite: you either love him or hate him. I prefer to let the clubs do the talking, but I absolutely admire his game.
It was pleasing too, to see Sean O’Hair make the play-off following tough times, while Henrik Stenson, who has six top-10s in his last 10 events, looks to have rediscovered his consistent excellence. Congratulations too to South Africa’s George Coetzee, who won his second title at the European Tour’s Tshwane Open.
But back to Spieth, and the Masters. He shared the 54-hole lead at Augusta last year with Watson and, thanks to his success since, will return a more confident, accomplished and therefore dangerous contender.
The man they must all beat is Rory McIlroy, and the world No1 is set to resume preparations by playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week.
McIlroy has had, by his standards, a disappointing last two tournaments but there were enough positive signs in the second to keep me expecting so much from him. I don’t think he has ever swung the club as well.
I’m also intrigued to see how Padraig Harrington plays, having finally ended his seven-year wait for a win on either of the main tours earlier this month.
There are just two more events after this before the Masters and, like those Olympic athletes, players don’t want to peak too early. McIlroy, though, can win this without peaking, and I fully expect the Northern Irishman to go for the victory.
Sam Torrance OBE is a multiple Ryder Cup-winning golfer and media commentator. Follow him on Twitter @torrancesam