Golf has three great stars but there can be only one No.1 – and for Hank Haney, it’s Spieth
A Fascinating aspect of golf throughout history has always been the various rivalries at the sharp end of the game. Oddly, those battles for supremacy have often enough come along not as mere head-to-heads but between groups of three. Over a century ago the “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid ruled. The American trio of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson – all born in 1912 – dominated the 1940s and 50s. And, more recently, the so-called “Big Three” of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer amassed an amazing 34 Grand Slam titles.
It’s a trend that is apparently far from over. Right now, we seem to be on the verge of a fourth chapter drawn from the same book, this time featuring Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth. The only men currently in double figures on the world-ranking list, the Irishman, Australian and American represent a cosmopolitan elite in a sport badly in need of likeable heroes – happily, all qualify – following the inexorable demise of Tiger Woods.
So what can we expect going forward? Who will turn out to be the best of the three? Whose game has most going for it? One man well qualified to assess the pluses and minuses of such talented individuals is Hank Haney, who coached Woods to six of his 14 major victories between 2004 and 2010.
“I think Jordan will wind up with the best record of the three,” says the Chicago native. “He has that internal motivation that is second to none right now. He has had no issues with his body. And he is best in putting, the part of the game that is hardest to improve. When you get to your 30s, you don’t normally become a great putter. So I have to go with him. His only downside is that he isn’t all-of-a-sudden going to get long off the tee. He is running as fast as he can run in that department.”
Sadly for McIlroy fans, Haney is not a fan of the Belfast man’s work on the greens. As many have sensed over the course of his spectacular career, the four-time major champion has only occasionally seemed totally at ease wielding the shortest club in his bag.
“The weakness in Rory’s game has always been his putting,” says Haney. “In 2014, he was 41st in strokes gained putting. And he was 13th in three-putt avoidance. Statistically, those numbers represent either incredible improvement or an aberration. Based on this year, you’d have to say last year was an aberration. This year he was 117th in strokes gained putting and 90th in three-putt avoidance. That’s just about where he has been throughout his career – apart from 2014.
“Rory’s ball striking is incredible. He’s top-ten or right there in driving distance. Which makes his accuracy off the tee – he is 23rd – absolutely incredible. He’s also comfortably in the top ten for greens in regulation. Those are statistics that can lead to domination, but not if you are 117th in putting.”
Still, for all that McIlroy’s 2015 has not come close to matching the previous 12 months, there are extenuating circumstances. Most notably, the Ulsterman missed a month of tournament play at the height of the season because of a football injury. Haney, however, is having none of that.
“I do wonder about Rory’s motivation,” he says. “He’s made a lot of money. It’s human nature to ease off, but I don’t see the same dedication in him that I see in Jordan. There was the playing soccer thing. And the comments he made at the end of the season worried me. He said that the years Jordan and Jason just had motivated him. Which is fine. But when did Tiger ever need that sort of motivation? Rory basically admitted to being not as motivated as he once was, or compared to his biggest rivals. That’s a red flag for me.
“When it takes external motivation to get someone going, it isn’t typically sustainable. It’s short-term. The best motivation is internal, as it has clearly been for Jason and Jordan. And was for Tiger.”
OK, what about Day?
“With Jason you have to keep in mind that it has taken him a long time to figure out how to win at the highest level,” says Haney. “That time has been wasted. If he had figured it out quicker, I would have said he would turn out to be the best historically. If you look at his game compared to the other two, he should be the one.
“Jason’s numbers for this year are off the charts. They are ridiculous. He has been, by far, the best player in the world – statistically at least. He is third in driving distance, sixth in greens in regulation, 14th in sand saves, fifth in strokes gained putting, fifth in three-putt avoidance and second in scrambling. He is by far the best player. Rory, in comparison, is 56th in scrambling. That’s a big difference.”
And Spieth? What exactly is his formula for success?
“It is obvious Jordan is the best putter in the world,” says Haney, who also coached Mark O’Meara to two major championship wins. “And he has been for the last two years. It’s not like he is in the middle of a hot streak. He’s just the best putter. I can’t remember a time when the best player in the world was also the best putter. Tiger was the best pressure putter, but he was never the best putter statistically. He made the pressure putts – as Jordan does – but there was always someone putting better day in and day out.
“Jordan is first in one-putt percentage. He’s first in putts per round. He’s ninth in strokes gained putting. He makes more putts from 15-25 feet than anyone. He’s just the best putter. Not just the best pressure putter as Tiger and Jack Nicklaus were at their peaks.
“On the greens, Rory gave Jordan one-and-a-half shots per round this year – 29.39 versus 27.82. That’s six shots per tournament and why Rory had so many top-ten finishes this year but not many wins. Jason is half a shot behind Jordan in putts per round, close enough that he can beat Jordan occasionally.”
Right, so where are we? Are we on the edge of an era of almost total domination by three men? Or are there others out there who can step up to challenge? Rickie Fowler for example. The diminutive Californian claimed three big titles during 2015, including the Players Championship and the Scottish Open.
“Rickie isn’t anywhere near the class of the other three,” says Haney. “He has to win a major to be up there with them. Actually, he just has to improve. Statistically, the top three are on a whole different level from anyone else. It’s not even close. They are head and shoulders better than the rest.
“But Rickie is on a trajectory to get close to the top. He has shown that he can handle the moment. That’s a great trait. His problem is getting to the moment. If he gets there though, he can handle it. But so can the big three. So even that doesn’t give him an edge. It just puts him on their level.”
And that is all.