About a decade ago, when Kevin VanDam was gobbling up Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and Bassmaster Classic trophies like Pac Man, many writers and fans referred to him as “The Tiger Woods of Fishing.” VanDam seemed to resist the comparison, even before Tiger’s marital indiscretions were exposed, but purely on the basis of performance the analogy seemed apt.
VanDam was on his way to four Classic wins, tying him for top dog in that category with Rick Clunn. He also amassed seven AOY honors, putting him just a couple behind Roland Martin, and given his level of dominance in a sport that is hard to dominate, it appeared that he’d grab some more hardware in the next few years.
Meanwhile, Woods had accumulated 14 Major championship titles by his 33rd birthday, well within reach of the record-setting 18 that Jack Nicklaus had won in his storied career.
Neither of them has won a major title post 2011. That’s the headline, but a deeper dive into the stats tells two different stories. VanDam has remained uber-competitive, winning multiple tournaments and consistently finishing in the money since he won the 2011 Classic. He’s a threat to win just about anything he fishes and seems likely to go on another major streak before he elects to call it quits. Woods, meanwhile, due to injuries and apparently some inner demons, seems to be hobbled by more than age. While he’s passed Nicklaus on the list of golfers with the most PGA wins, he’s still behind Sam Snead for the lead and hasn’t added a Major win since the 2008 U.S. Open. He still puts butts in the seats, but he’s a shell of what he once promised to be.
Whether you’re the unanimous all-caps GOAT or just a broken, philandering lowercase goat, there’s always someone looking to take away the top spot. Right now, in bass fishing (with apologies to Brandon Palaniuk) that angler is Jordan Lee.
At 26 years old, with two Classic victories, Jordan is in the driver’s seat – as much as anyone could ever be – to tie or pass Rick Clunn and VanDam for the record number of Classic wins. VanDam was almost 34 when he won his first, and almost 38 when he won his second. Clunn won his first two at 30 and 31. Of course, a precocious start is no guarantee of future success. Stanley Mitchell, who won the 1981 Classic at 21, went on to a decent career with B.A.S.S. that included two other wins and nine more Classic appearances, but he never won another major title.
The fact that Lee has doubled down on titles in such a short span (or at all) indicates that he’s unlikely to become a flash in the pan, or even just an average pro, but even for superstars titles can be elusive. When Mike Iaconelli won the Classic in 2003 and the AOY title in 2006, who would have thought that over a decade later he wouldn’t have added several more? Yet no one can say that Ike hasn’t had a Hall of Fame career. While it’s fun to do and part of our job, it’s also unfair for pundits like me to speculate as to whether Jordan will set records going forward or to try to guess his career trajectory from here. Yes, he’s a two-time Classic champ, and with that comes the burden of carrying part of the weight of the sport on his shoulders, but he’s also 26, and that means he’s still growing and developing as both a person and an angler.
So while we can’t meaningfully speculate about how many more titles Mr. Lee will accumulate, it’s not too soon to think about what kind of champion he will be. My advice to him is to pay equal attention to both his long game and his short game, focusing on his potential to win each event, but also starting to think about what his legacy will be – regardless of whether he wins 10 more Classics or never qualifies for another one. There is no requirement that you use the Classic platform in any particular way. The way Ike has used his win is different from the way Randy Howell used his, which is different from the way Robert Hamilton used his, which is different from the way Cliff Pace used his. We might argue that some were “better” champs than others, but no one can say that any particular angler used his title incorrectly. By earning it, you earn the right to do as you please with it.
That’s the truly exciting part of this. At 26, Jordan Lee is a top-flight angler with two titles to his credit. Will he be flawless from here on out? Doubtful. But as fans we get to see how he develops as a fisherman and as a person, under the brightest of the sport’s lights. When Clunn won his first Classic, none of us had the internet. When VanDam won his first, there was no BASSTrakk, no Bassmaster LIVE, no such thing as a GoPro.
For the first time in the sport’s history, we have a chance to document a champion’s career from start to finish, and to witness in real time how he handles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs.
I’m excited to see what kind of Tiger this young Auburn grad will become.