Rabalais: Jordan Spieth has look of next U.S. golf star _lowres

Associated Press photo by Matt Slocum -- Bubba Watson helps Jordan Spieth put on his green jacket after winning the Masters golf tournament Sunday in Augusta, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hello, world.

Ever since that night nearly six years ago when Tiger Woods crashed his Escalade into that fire hydrant and his body started misfiring in all sorts of ways, American golf has been looking for “The Next.”

Rory McIlroy came along, still the world No. 1, but he’s from Northern Ireland. Former University High golfer Patrick Reed declared himself to be a top-five player a little over a year ago after winning at Doral (he hasn’t gotten there yet but is a very respectable No. 14), but he has been cast in the role of the anti-hero at best.

Enter Jordan Spieth. The right player at the right time with the right image.

Sunday, he won the right major, the Masters. It’s debatable whether it’s the biggest golf tournament in the world — the U.S. and British opens have their rooting grandstands — but there’s no question that the Masters is the most popular.

In 1997, a 21-year-old Woods posted an even more dominant Masters victory (he won by 12, Spieth by four), stamping himself as the biggest player in the game for a new generation, filling a vacuum in American golf left empty really since the sun set on Tom Watson’s reign a decade earlier.

The 21-year-old Spieth now steps into the vacuum left by Woods.

He’s boyishly good-looking, loves his family, is a Southerner from Dallas (always an endearing quality, y’all) and even his competitors like him. I’m sure he loves puppies, cries when he watches the end of “Rudy” and helps old ladies across fairways when called upon.

“It’s hard not to like him,” Masters co-runner-up Phil Mickelson said, “hard not to pull for the guy.”

“He’s going to fly the flag for golf for quite a while,” said Justin Rose, who tied Mickelson for second. “You can tell.”

The biggest thing that seems likely to derail Spieth at this point is the crush of unrelenting and unreasonable expectations. He may be the best since Woods, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to win like Woods. Fourteen majors is like stacking Everest on top of K2 and telling a golfer “Climb that.”

But it’s hard not to expect the world from him.

In 11 events dating to November and his also-dominant win in the Australian Open, Spieth has four victories, two runner-up finishes and nine top-10s. His other two finishes: a tie for 17th at Doral and a missed cut (gasp!) in San Diego.

“He doesn’t get himself into too much trouble,” said Reed, who looks to be Spieth’s Ryder Cup/President’s Cup partner for the foreseeable future, a fire and ice pair of match-play maulers. “Even if he misses drives, it’s not way off line. I would say his weakest part is his chipping, and it’s not that bad. But his putting is just phenomenal.”

It’s that putting that led Spieth to a Masters record 28 birdies and made him the first wire-to-wire solo leader since Raymond Floyd in 1976.

As was said here last week, this year’s Masters very much had the feel of a guard-changing moment. Golf is the only sport that can blend generations so well, so it wasn’t surprising to see a 21-year old beat a 34-year old (Rose) and a 44-year old (Mickelson, who owns wedges older than Spieth), with a 25-year old (McIlroy) giving chase in fourth place with a closing 66.

Players like Woods (who ended up a respectable 17th after so many questions about his game over a two-month layoff) and Mickelson will continue to contend in the big events. But dominate? They’re the dinosaurs in that regard.

As much as we may miss them, it’s the natural order.

“There are some older players who have been terrific for a long time,” Jack Nicklaus wrote in a congratulatory message to Spieth. “But actually, this might be the time for the young guys to take over.”

It is.

And they are.

One in particular.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.