Jordan Spieth's win ushers in new era, new rivalry

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Prior to his first major championship start at the 1957 U.S. Open in his home state of Ohio, Jack Nicklaus was asked to make a prediction. "You have to pick [Ben] Hogan," the 17-year-old surmised. "He is the finest golfer in the world."

Nicklaus went on to witness the iconic Hogan withdraw with a backache that week, spinning golf's axis toward a new world order and launching the Golden Bear on a path to become arguably the greatest in the sport.

And if there are six degrees of separation in the game's history, Nicklaus might have spanned three or four of 'em, a career that started against Hogan, continued last week against players like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth (sure, it was just the Par 3 Contest, but he made a hole-in-one and they didn't) and ended with offering his opinion on Spieth's record-tying Masters win not over a microphone or telephone but via Twitter:

Yes, the longevity of great golfers bridges all sorts of generational gaps. Even Tiger Woods, fresh off a T-17 result that left him 13 strokes behind Spieth's Masters-winning total, sounded resigned to the knowledge that he's now living in a generation that belongs to others.

"When I first came out here, it was Phil [Mickelson] and I trying to take over," Woods said. "Phil and I were part of the younger crowd. Now he's in his mid-40s and I'm about ready to turn 40, so the roles are reversed. But it's neat to still be a part of it. That's the thing."

There might be no greater admission of the changing times than the self-assured 14-time major champion calling it "neat" to be dominated by players who were in various stages of grade school when he won his first Masters in 1997. It doesn't mean Tiger can't win again; it just won't be an expectation.

Within that concession, though, is a finer point: Woods didn't go it alone. He was the more dominant player of his generation, but he was surrounded by a few other Hall of Fame talents. And so the latest generation, one that already has seen McIlroy win four majors and Spieth claim his first, has others -- the "backup singers," as Nick Faldo referred to them on this weekend's telecast -- waiting for their turns, from Hideki Matsuyama to Rickie Fowler to Patrick Reed to Brooks Koepka.

For now, the debates will be centered largely on McIlroy and Spieth, currently the world's highest-ranked players. Can they forge a clear-cut rivalry for the next two decades? Will one supersede the other? How will they compare to uber-talented players who battled each other in previous generations?

There is a sense that Spieth could play Mickelson to McIlroy's Woods, a brilliant performer who remains overshadowed. But that analogy doesn't allow for the early major breakthrough of this weekend, when the 21-year-old triumphed a dozen years earlier than the unsinkable left-hander.

Or maybe Spieth will play the Watson role to McIlroy's Nicklaus. But that comparison is similarly flawed, considering Nicklaus owned 13 major titles before Tom Watson ever won his first. The analogies will even transcend golf. Frazier to his Ali. Bird to his Magic.

Those are all fun hypotheticals for sports-talk fodder, but nothing more. The next, oh, 100 or so major championships should help determine exactly what kind of rivalry or relationship this next crop of superstars maintains.

"We're all very respectful of each other," Spieth said during his post-round news conference Sunday, the green jacket draped around his shoulders. "We all root for each other. It's not like I'm out there with Patrick Reed saying, 'I hope he misses his putt.' It's, 'I hope he makes this, and I hope I make two in a row on top.' That's just kind of the mentality we all have as younger guys coming out now."

The new generation is upon us, but the evolutionary idea is nothing new. Hogan watched as younger players eventually overtook him; Nicklaus did too. And now Woods is seeing Spieth, McIlroy and the next era do the same.

Tiger could fight it, but he knows the game's history. So he can only watch and understand and, somewhat unconvincingly, call it "neat."