- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year looked anything but on Tuesday amid the California mountains, acting and talking like a grizzled veteran, perhaps buoyed by a season that saw him win more than $3.8 million and earn a spot in Tiger Woods' late-season annual cash grab.
And to think, exactly a year ago this week, Jordan Spieth, 20, was simmering at home in Texas, seething that he had failed to advance out of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament's second stage, and finishing up his final exams at the University of Texas.
That meant no spot in the Q-school finals, no automatic place to play in 2013.
Spieth left school and turned pro for this kind of uncertainty?
"There was a little bit of fear maybe that crept in," Spieth said at Sherwood Country Club, where he is part of the 18-man field at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge that begins Thursday. "Hey, I'm going to need to make the most of these starts when they come, and they were a long way off.
"All in all, I was excited. I was practicing a lot, working out a lot. Ultimately when the new year started, all that fear was pretty much gone. I just gotten mentally prepared and just kind of went with it."
Did he ever.
Ranked 810th in the world after missing the cut in January at the Farmers Insurance Open -- where he received a sponsor's exemption -- Spieth put together a remarkable season, especially considering his reassessed goal was to try and find his way to the PGA Tour through the Web.com Tour money list.
But Spieth managed to have some success in tour events in which he was given sponsor's exemptions. There was a tie for second in Puerto Rico, then a tie for seventh at the Tampa Bay Championship, and all of a sudden, Spieth had attained special temporary membership, which assured him unlimited exemptions.
The obvious goal at that point was to win enough money to be among the top 125 money-winners and be exempt for the 2013-14 season, but Spieth was thinking beyond that. He wanted to win -- and did so at the John Deere Classic, which got him into the Open Championship the following week in July. He lost in a playoff the following month at the Wyndham Championship.
For the year, he ended up with nine top-10s, including a win and four second-place finishes.
"It's been an incredible year," he said.
But it was a fourth-place tie at the Deutsche Bank that had Phil Mickelson buzzing. Lefty played with Spieth and watched him shoot a career-low 62 in the final round, and immediately got in touch with U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, pushing him to make Spieth an at-large selection for the team.
"Not only is he a great player, but he's got a great demeanor," Mickelson said at the Presidents Cup. "He's very easy to be around and very likable."
"He's a much better player than probably many of us were, except for Tiger [Woods], when they were 19 and 20 years old," Couples said. "To be on the [Presidents Cup] team in six months, I mean, he almost made it on points … I met his father, who is probably 8 years younger than I am, which was really weird. I wasn't expecting that, but he came up and said, 'Hi, I'm Jordan's father.' I looked, and I thought he was 30 years old."
Of course, it is a bit jarring to look at Spieth's birthdate: July 27, 1993. That's the year after Woods played his first PGA Tour event as an amateur. Ernie Els was a year away from winning his first U.S. Open.
Spieth's youth suggests, however, that he still has plenty to learn. Now ranked 22nd in the world, he has played just once since the Tour Championship, finishing 17th at the HSBC Champions in China.
The time off has given Spieth a chance to reflect and recharge, and before long, he'll be back at it, heading to Hawaii for the first tournament in 2014 -- the Tournament of Champions.
But now the expectations will be higher, and backing up and building on such a good rookie year will be paramount.
Spieth already has his sights set on improvement on the majors; he missed two cuts in his three major starts in 2013.
"Each year going back to when I was 12 years old, I've improved," Spieth said. "This year, a big focus of mine is on the majors. Now I'm in all four of them and can pick my schedule leading up to them to have the best success I can versus not even knowing I was going to be in a couple of them, one of them the day before. (Spieth qualified for the Open Championship by winning the John Deere.)
"So that will be a big focus, trying to play all four weekends and really getting competitive in the majors and try to see what it feels like."