HONOLULU — To compare Jordan Spieth with Tiger Woods is not a mistake because Spieth does it all the time.
That’s what keeps him grounded.
And don’t be shy about throwing Phil Mickelson into that conversation. Spieth thinks a lot about Lefty, too.
As he walked toward a Maui sunset with a lei around his neck and the silver trophy in his hand from an eight-shot victory in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Spieth was asked what kept him from getting a big head.
It would be hard to fault him. In the last 10 months, the 22-year-old Texan has won the Masters and the U.S. Open, pursued the calendar Grand Slam like no one before, crossed $20 million in career PGA Tour earnings and established himself as No. 1 in the world.
He has the golf world at his feet.
He keeps Woods and Mickelson on a pedestal.
“The more you look at Tiger, you look at Phil, you start realizing how far away you are from one of the best players to ever play the game,” Spieth said. “And if you look at that, it keeps your head small.
“Now hopefully, you have a chance to ask me that when there’s a possibility of it getting big,” he added. “But for now, I think the more I look at, ‘What have they done?’ and ‘What are they thinking about how I’m talking?’ when they’re sitting there with 45 and 79 wins and major championships ... you look at guys I come in contact with, my peers on the golf course who are just so much more accomplished, and it keeps me a little smaller.”
The comparisons with Woods are largely about age.
Since 1970 when the PGA Tour began keeping more thorough records, Spieth and Woods are the only players with seven victories at age 22. Woods was about a month younger when he picked up his seventh tour victory, and he had not quite completed two full years as a pro. Spieth is in his fourth PGA Tour season.
Woods won seven of his first 38 starts. Spieth won seven of his first 77 starts.
Spieth wasn’t doing the math when he walked off the 18th green at Kapalua and was asked about comparisons with Woods. He heard “Tiger” and thought about a decade of dominance and numbers that will be tough for anyone to match.
“Nowhere near,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to compare. It’s awfully early. We’re excited about where we’re at to start our career. What Tiger’s done I can’t image ever being done. But it’s nice to be in that company.”
Spieth isn’t the first player to be compared with Woods.
Just over four years ago, Rory McIlroy was 22 when he won his first major at Congressional by smashing the U.S. Open scoring record in an eight-shot victory. One major, and the comparisons with Woods had already begun.
Padraig Harrington led the charge that week, saying that McIlroy might be in better position to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors because he had at least 20 more years of prime golf. Woods had been stuck on 14 majors and missed the U.S. Open that week for the first time because of leg injuries.
“If you’re going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” Harrington said. McIlroy responded then like Spieth does now. He lowered his head and said quietly, “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.”
There’s another reason to consider McIlroy while being in awe of Spieth.
At this time a year ago, McIlroy was No. 1 by an even greater margin than Spieth is now. McIlroy had come off a year in which he won the British Open and PGA Championship, and he was headed to the Masters with a shot at the career Grand Slam. He started the year with a runner-up in Abu Dhabi and a victory in Dubai.
And by the end of the year, McIlroy was No. 3.
Woods paid Spieth the ultimate compliment in the Bahamas last month when watching from a cart. “This kid is so smart,” Woods said.
Spieth shows that on and off the golf course, particularly when it involves his place in history.
For all his success, for the magic of his wedges and the pureness of his putting, comparing Spieth with Woods is based on projections and predictions while the kid is preaching patience.
“I just think it’s premature, but I’ll say that probably my entire career,” Spieth said. “There’s just such an age gap that I understand the comparisons are going to be there. I hope they continue to be there. That means I’m still being in the same ballpark as he is.”
For now, that’s not a bad place to be.