Happy New Year, fellow duffers. Let's get right down to business, catching up with our favorite golf protagonists as 2014 dawns and the Maui Ritz Carlton bar rings up soda pop after soda pop for the still-not-legal-to-drink Jordan Spieth.
And those scores you saw on the leader board at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, like -19 and -18 and -17 … yeah, those weren't temperatures. Sorry, Midwest.
Where are our heroes as the New Year dawns? Well, Phil Mickelson was in freezing rain in Cincinnati for the NFL playoffs, wearing his sky-blue San Diego Chargers cap and watching Philip Rivers show Andy Dalton how it's done, not unlike how Lefty showed us how to close an Open Championship last summer. Rory McIlroy was Down Under, trying to start 2014 in a much happier manner than he spent his foundering 2013 – getting engaged to his tennis star girlfriend, Carolina Wozniacki before she plays the Australian Open. Tiger Woods? He turned 38-years-old over the holidays (Tiger! 38!), his girlfriend Lindsey Vonn eyes the Sochi Winter Games next month and he'll start his year at Torrey Pines on Jan. 23. We haven't seen Tiger since Dec. 8, when mild-mannered Zach Johnson stabbed him in the heart in a playoff at Tiger's World Challenge event in Sherwood.
Did someone mention mild-mannered Zach Johnson stabbing golfers in the heart?
That seems like such an un-Hawaii, un-Happy New Year's thing to do, what with leis and luaus and gentle breezes. But we may have an early theme in 2014 after Johnson's final-round 66 at Kapalua netted him the one-shot win over the great story that is Spieth. Don't let his three cute kids running onto the green fool you. Zach Johnson will cut you up, usually with a wedge and usually leaving it below the hole and close. The win was Johnson's 11th career PGA Tour victory, and he's starting to compile all sorts of stat sheet fillers.
Stat sheet fillers like: Only Tiger, Phil and Vijay Singh have more wins in the past decade than Johnson. Or, Johnson has now won three of his last six starts, adding Kapalua to the BMW Championship in the 2013 FedEx Cup playoffs, and the Tiger-slaying at Sherwood. Or, Johnson's final round scores dating back to last August's WGC event at Bridgestone: 67, 68, 68, 66, 65, 68, 67, 67, 68, 66. Or, that Johnson was No. 9 in the world before Kapalua, and now is making himself at home as one of the planet's top 10 players.
Have wedge, will travel.
The short hitter in a big hitter's world took on the big ol' par-73 at Maui, a gigantic ballpark better suited to his Monday playing partner, Dustin Johnson, who won last year at Kapalua. But of the Johnson & Johnson pairing, it was Johnson who had tons more control of his golf ball, tons more patience and tons more skill around the green. If you have to ask which Johnson, you weren't watching.
"I just picked it apart," Zach Johnson told The Golf Channel. His caddie, Damon Green, told him in the scorer's trailer: "You should have won by 10," giving a little caddie needle referencing Johnson's inexplicable 74 in the third round. Yes, Zach Johnson was that good.
Johnson also spoke of finding "peace" on the golf course. If he could market that, he could buy his own Hawaiian island. He even stopped after teeing-off on 17, the elevated tee with the view of the world, plopped down on the tee box and took in the view before heading down the fairway. You could almost hear the spiritual cleanse.
At age 37, it appears Zach Johnson has found a sweet spot in his career: deep faith, solid family and unreal wedge game. It's adding up to the best run of his career, and that includes his 2007 Masters win. Those final-round scores tell you all you need to know about a player combining maturity, wisdom and skill into one sweet roll. So far, it's Zach Johnson's world. But golf is funny. Check back weekly and we'll keep you updated on all the changes.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
66-70-69-69 – 18-under 274, Jordan Spieth, 2nd place, PGA Tour Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Plantation Course, Kapalua, Maui.
Climb aboard the Spieth Express before it's sold out, sports fans. The 20-year-old Texan backed up his crazy good rookie year with a crazy good start to 2014's calendar year, and so here's what you need to know:
It's pronounced Spieth, rhymes with "teeth." There is little indication this prodigy came from any sort of crazed family dynamic that makes him a ticking time bomb. To the contrary, report after report shows a preternaturally balanced kid with a preternaturally balanced golf game. His consistency is remarkable, with 10 top-10s in 25 starts, and four second-place finishes already. Considering most other 20-year-olds put off making their dorm room beds for weeks at a time, Spieth would be an anomaly.
This guy is making 24-year-old Rory McIlroy look like yesterday's news.
Tied for the 54-hole lead with Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson, Spieth experienced his first "sleep-with-the-54-hole-lead" night, and didn't do a bad job of delivering the bacon when he woke up. Spieth shot 69 on Monday, and had about a 90-footer for eagle on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. As he stood over the putt, not many were discounting his chances, given that Spieth has shown a clutch gene already – and had flashed it on Zach Johnson last summer in winning the John Deere in a playoff.
He didn't make the putt, but did make the birdie to finish and nab the solo second. Even better, he told Steve Sands on The Golf Channel that he had a great experience "feeling the nerves" and "having that adrenaline rush" seeing his name next to the best players in the world. Indeed, Kapalua delivered a leaderboard chock full of top-25-in-the-world names, like Adam Scott (tie-6th), Simpson (tie-3rd) and both Johnsons. Heck, Spieth is one of those names, too. He entered Kapalua already ranked 22nd in the world.
Plus, he may be challenging Mickelson for the title of "Best On-Air Conversations With Caddie Caught By Boom Microphone." For years, Lefty and his caddie, Bones Mackay, are the runaway best at having elaborate, loud, crystal-clear discussions about yardage, wind, false fronts, you name it. You can't not listen. But at Kapalua, Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, didn't mind chatting away in full audience with the microphones. After Spieth hit an approach to the par-5 15th, we heard the following: "Yes! That should be there … It might be over … You gotta be kidding me … How soft did that hit? … I hammered that into the hill … You gotta be joking … I see it … it's way back … "
Sounds just like you and me.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"The wind, slope and grain are all going the same way. It magnifies everything. He knows it's a right edge putt, but started it maybe at the center." – Mark Rolfing, The Golf Channel, analyzing a missed putt by Webb Simpson.
"You're being very kind. That started left of the hole … come on. That's a cut-across yank." – Johnny Miller, analyzing both the putt and Rolfing's gentle touch.
"Rolf's our host with the most this week." – Dan Hicks, pointing out Rolfing, a Hawaiian, was being kind to island visitors.
"Well, I'm not." – Miller.
Look at Johnny Miller, starting off 2014 with some feisty rips. Good to know it's a New Year, but the same Johnny.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
We could go with any number of errant Dustin Johnson drives, but Dustin Johnson is just fine, judging by Paulina Gretzky's Instagram account. I could also give a mulligan to Billy Horschel's red-orange slacks, but I actually sorta liked them. So sue me.
Instead, I remain fascinated by Spieth and his massive amounts of game. Had he won, he'd have been the youngest player to win twice by the age of 20 since 1931. And he was tied for the lead at 16-under making the turn, too.
But as he said, "my putter went cold" – hard to do in 79-degree Maui sun – and he didn't make any noise until his birdie on 17 made it interesting.
In particular, Spieth had about a 10-footer on the 14th hole for bird to tie for the lead and just slid it past. He thought he had it, and was so frustrated, he slapped his putter head angrily, then bit a knuckle. It was nice to see the kid burn for the win, but not nice to see him miss the putt.
So, in the interest of making the 72nd hole a one-shot ballgame, and in the interest of seeing Jordan Spieth continue to be Jordan Spieth, let's go back out to 14, tell Spieth not to miss low, as he did so many times, and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Jump aboard an island-hopper for the 25-minute flight to Oahu and the first full-field event of 2014, the Sony Open. Heck, at that short a distance, you might just want to kayak.
If you do, you'll see a pretty decent field at venerable Waialae, including Scott, Matt Kuchar, Spieth and Jason Dufner. Dufner won't be hard to spot. He'll be the guy in week-old blue-and-orange face paint after watching his beloved Auburn Tigers lose the BCS championship.