published Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Greeson: Could golf's future arrive today?

Jordan Spieth hits out of bunker on the eighth fairway during the third round of the Masters golf tournament Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Augusta, Ga.
Jordan Spieth hits out of bunker on the eighth fairway during the third round of the Masters golf tournament Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Augusta, Ga.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — World, meet Jordan. Jordan, the world.

That's Jordan Spieth. The boy wonder from Texas, who not only has been saddled with the lofty expectations of the next big thing but has embraced them, awoke this morning with a share of the lead going into the final round of Masters.

The kid is 20. Twenty. The same age as your average college sophomore.

He was born in July 1993, about 15 months after Fred Couples won the Masters and in the year the world wide web was introduced. He's a kid with a world of promise, and after shooting three rounds under par in his first Masters, those promises may be delivered overnight and arrive this very day.

"I'm 20 and this is the Masters," Spieth said coolly after his 70 on Saturday. "This is the tournament I've always dreamt about."

To say he's composed and talented beyond his age would be accurate even if he was 20 in dog years. Forget ice water: This kid has Freon in his veins, and that's only magnified by his advance skill set.

Other than doctors and accountants, we are naturally drawn to youth. We want to catch a ride on the next best thing sooner rather than later. That's especially true in sports, where to be on the bandwagon before it becomes a bandwagon is fan euphoria.

And Spieth is a rocket ready to launch.

"Not much bothers him," Couples said. "Tomorrow obviously is going to be a really, really, hard day to try to win this thing, but he's well qualified."

He's the real deal, and whether he knows it not, there's a lot riding on the next big thing in golf, whether it's Spieth or Rickie Fowler or whoever it may be.

Those two uber-talented 20-somethings are in the mix for their magic Masters moment today. Sure, Fowler, who got back in the mix with a 67 Saturday and is two back of Spieth and Bubba Watson, has been known more for his hues than huge accomplishments, but the kid looks the part this weekend. And while he has been a bigger player in moving merchandise than moving the meter of public perception, he has the charisma and talent to be the lead character in golf's next act.

Plus, remember that Tiger Woods did not truly flip the switch from world-class potential to worldwide superstar until he won the Masters in 1997.

"It's about time that I need to step up and start playing well on the weekends, especially at the majors," Fowler said.

While there are a slew of familiar names at the top of the board -- including third-round leader Watson, who salvaged a 74 out of a shaky Saturday, perennial good guy and major shortcomers Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk in the top 10 -- it's Spieth and Fowler who are best qualified among this group to represent the next generation.

And whereas the questions about when they break through can wait at least a while, the questions about the game's future are more clear today than ever before.

The machinations of a maniacal Masters moving day at Augusta National left us with a scrambled leaderboard and a potential answer to the game's biggest unspoken question: Who's next?

The game's recent past and its current faces were not part of the festivities Saturday on golf's biggest stage. Woods pulled out before the tournament started because of back surgery. Phil Mickelson failed to make the cut.

The absence of the game's two biggest nickname stars left a wide-open Saturday and a wider view of the potential uncertain future of an individual-driven game that faces an inevitable crossroads that could be a crosshairs without an heir apparent.

The overnight numbers delivered a cold hard truth that screams a clear message. Without Tiger in the mix, there were 1 million fewer viewers for ESPN's coverage Thursday than the previous year. Without Tiger on Friday, there were 1.7 million-plus more viewers watching the second round in 2013 when he played in the afternoon during live coverage.

It's simple, really. Individual sports rather than team sports must have lightning rods. They crave the megawatt stars who move the needle and generate opinion -- good or bad -- from even the most causal fans.

If you love Tiger, you likely skipped this Masters, and that's too bad, because there has been some magic whistled through these thinning Georgia pines.

If you hate Tiger, you likely are remiss to admit that this game needs him more than we may have realized. This is golf's most recognized event, and for the viewing audiences the first two days to be down 28 and 45 percent, respectively, is staggering. Add to that fact that according to Scarborough national research, more people played fantasy football than a round of golf last year, and the need for the causal fan is more important than ever for the game.

Woods generates an opinion, be it liking or loathing, and that connection -- that vested, rooting interest -- garners viewers and creates attention.

Who's next? Do we meet the next big thing or just the next man of the moment? Maybe, maybe not. And there's still time for both Fowler and Spieth regardless of what happens today.

But the game needs its next star to step forward, and stepping forward on golf's biggest stage at Augusta National seems like the rite of passage.

"I am very pleased to have this opportunity," Spieth said, "because no matter what, I can control my own destiny."

Spieth's destiny may well be the next chapter in this grand game, and the first page could be written today.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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