Jordan Spieth rising to new heights
When Jordan Spieth failed to advance to the finals of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament in November after leaving Texas during his sophomore year, it made perfectly good sense. At 19, despite showing flashes of brilliance in a handful of tour starts, he wasn't ready for the big time.
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After Q-school, I thought he would emerge somewhere over the next year, perhaps on the Web.com Tour and the regular tour through sponsors' exemptions and Monday qualifiers. Maybe he would play well enough to earn a place in this week's Web.com Tour Championship on Dye's Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass.
He would pay his dues and learn how to get on a leaderboard and stay. He had to grow accustomed to the travel and seeing new golf courses for the first time.
Spieth would have the typical rocky start to his pro career and be an example of the perils of turning pro in your teens.
Few could have foreseen what the Dallas native actually did in 2013: nine top-10s including a win at the John Deere Classic, $3.8 million in earnings, a berth on the U.S. Presidents Cup team and now the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Phil Mickelson's Sunday 66 to clinch the Open Championship in July might go down as the single best round of the year, but Spieth arguably had the most impressive season of any player in the pro game, considering that he started the year with no status on any major tour.
Several rookies have had phenomenal starts to their careers since this award was first given to Robert Gamez, who won twice in 1990. Most notably, Tiger won twice in 11 events in 1996 and more recently Keegan Bradley took the 2011 Byron Nelson and the PGA Championship after a year on the Web.com Tour. Rickie Fowler made the 2010 Ryder Cup a year after playing in the Walker Cup.
Yet of the 24 winners of the rookie of the year, Spieth owns the most top-10s in his first year on tour after finishing the season tied for the tour lead in that category. No rookie has ever led in top-10s in the tour's 33 years of keeping the stat.
In January, Spieth would not have been very high on most lists of rookie of the year candidates. After winning the Sony Open in his first regular tour event, Russell Henley was the early favorite to take that honor.
Henley had completed his college eligibility at Georgia, earned a degree and won on the Web.com Tour as an amateur. He was the model U.S. player, a great example for younger golfers itching to leave school early.
Henley's choice might have been the safer bet, but one model doesn't work for all players. Spieth was ready for the tour or at least ready to figure out if he could succeed out there.
It was easy to be skeptical about his chances of having immediate success. The mini tours are full of former college All-Americans with fabulous golf swings and confidence. And sadly many of these players will never make it on the big tour for a variety of reasons.
From the beginning, Spieth had a big endorsement deal with Under Armour, but he had no place to play. At least the 17-year-old Ty Tryon had a tour card in 2002 before flaming out after a couple of tough years of not making many cuts. Incidentally, Spieth's agent is Jay Danzi, the same former IMG employee who helped Tryon get his career off the ground.
But Spieth was a much better player than Tryon. Spieth, as a 16-year-old Dallas native, finished in a tie for 16th at the Byron Nelson. He won two U.S. Junior Amateurs and helped Texas to a national championship in 2012. Before turning pro, he made the cut in five of the eight events he played on tour and was the low amateur at the 2012 U.S. Open with a tie for 21st.
Still, most of the anecdotal evidence pointed to him struggling to find his way.
Spieth wasn't entirely sure that he had what it took to play the tour, he told me, until he finished in a tie for second in March at the Puerto Rico Open.
"That was the moment where I knew that I could play out here and compete with these guys," said Spieth, who shot 10 under on the weekend at the Trump International Golf Club.
Up until that point, he had been merely confident that he had the tools to perform at that level. After that big break, he never looked back.
Now, many of his Presidents Cup teammates are clamoring to play with him next week at Muirfield Village. This kid that still drives the same Yukon truck from high school and says his only splurge will be to buy a house, is a bona fide superstar.
What's special about him is that he's an ordinary guy from a close-knit family with an efficient, unflashy golf swing. He has the kind of game that should hold up under pressure for the next 25 years.
Hopefully, he won't change too much. But it's inevitable with the increased demands on his time from his sponsors and the media that he will seek to carve out more privacy.
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What's left for him this season is the Presidents Cup, where he will be a big star, regardless of how he plays.
In April at Augusta, he has a good chance to break Tiger's record as the youngest winner of the green jacket. Yet it's too early to start comparing him to Woods or any of his peers who got their careers off to fast starts. Expect Spieth to still have some growing pains. In the next couple of years, we will see how he matures as a professional and a man and if he can handle the pressure of high expectations.
But let's allow him to enjoy this moment that he never could have imagined occurring at the beginning of the year.