Column: Spieth crossing $50M a reminder of Tiger's standard

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Jordan Spieth holds the championship trophy after winning a one-hole playoff at the RBC Heritage golf tournament, Sunday, April 17, 2022, in Hilton Head Island, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Not even inflation can diminish the dominance of Tiger Woods.

The latest reminder came at Hilton Head when Jordan Spieth overcame an 18-inch miss on Saturday and a three-shot deficit on Sunday to beat Patrick Cantlay in a playoff for his 13th career PGA Tour victory.

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Along with a tartan jacket (he looks better in green) and a spot in the winners-only field at Kapalua next January (a big perk to him), Spieth earned $1,440,000. That made him the 11th player in PGA Tour history to cross the $50 million mark in career earnings.

Officially, he is the youngest player at 28 years and 9 months to reach $50 million.

That's where inflation comes in.

Woods is the only other player to reach $50 million in career tour earnings before turning 30. He was 29 and 6 months when he was runner-up at the Western Open in 2005, pushing him over a milestone that he quickly left in the rearview mirror.

Woods needed only seven more years to cross $100 million, and now he is at $120,895,206.

Spieth was among a half-dozen players who inconspicuously leaned over the railing from the second floor of PGA Tour headquarters last month to watch as Woods was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He would be quick to acknowledge that a number like $50 million wouldn't even exist without Woods.

Yes, there was a significant difference in purses.

Total prize money when Woods turned pro in the summer of 1996 was $65.95 million. Spieth turned pro in 2013 — like Woods, without a tour card — and the total prize fund was $260 million.

While both reached $50 million in roughly nine years, Woods did it in 41 fewer tournaments (177 compared with 218 for Spieth). The average total prize money for Woods during that stretch was $173.8 million. For Spieth, it was $322.56 million.

Rory McIlroy is a better comparison. He turned pro nearly six years before Spieth and has kept a global schedule with membership on two tours. McIlroy needed only 173 events on the PGA Tour to reach $50 million at Bay Hill in 2020, about six weeks before he turned 31.

Scores are coming down and prize money is going up. Such is the evolution of sport. The best measure will always be victories.

Woods has 82 on the PGA Tour alone — 11 more on tours in Asia, Australia, Japan and Europe — and 15 majors. Those are the numbers that define him. When he passed $50 million, Woods already had 43 tour victories.

Money still matters, though not entirely to Woods. He was asked at Riviera a few months ago if he knew how much was in his deferred compensation package.

“Nope. Uh-uh,” he said.

Does he want to know?

“Uh-uh,” he said.

Still, this can be added to his long list of feats that might never be matched, right up there with 142 consecutive cuts and needing only seven starts to qualify for the Tour Championship.

Woods has been atop the PGA Tour career money list for 22 years.

It used to be a contest. Greg Norman took the lead over Tom Kite in August 1995 by winning the World Series of Golf at Firestone, and he kept it until the last week in January 2000 when Davis Love III moved past him after the Phoenix Open.

Love stayed on top all of two weeks until Woods was runner-up at Torrey Pines and took over. It took 73 tournaments from his “Hello, world” introduction to Woods leading the career money list, and the gap has only widened.

Spieth is not ready to declare himself all the way back — “close but far” is what he said after he won the RBC Heritage. He has two wins in just over a year, but also seven finishes out of the top 25 since winning the Texas Open last year and three missed cuts this year.

He will always be compared with how he started his career.

It was at the Valspar Championship in 2015 when Spieth, then 21 and in his third year, played a practice round with three others born the same year — Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Ollie Schniederjans. They lined up for a group photo from oldest to youngest, sharing birthdates to make sure they got it right. Spieth was the youngest.

This was one week after he passed $9 million in career money.

Spieth went on to win five times that year, including the Masters and U.S. Open, missing the British Open playoff by one shot and finishing second in the PGA Championship. He had a 60% rate finishing in the top 10 and set a PGA Tour record with $12,030,465 in earnings.

Woods in 2000 won nine times, including three majors. He was runner-up four times and only finished out of the top 10 three times in 20 starts. He made $9,188,321 that year.

The money keeps going up. The Players Championship paid $3.6 million to the winner — the total purse was $3.5 million the first year Woods played.

Is it enough for anyone to catch Woods?

McIlroy, who turns 33 in two weeks, is just over $59 million behind. Spieth is $70 million back, and not quite $4 million ahead of his contemporary, Justin Thomas. Dustin Johnson has just over $74 million in career earnings. He turns 38 in June.

Even with today's money, they all seem so far away. Just like always.


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